The Tahitian Pearl is born in the lagoons of French Polynesia and is recognized around the world. They are amazingly beautiful, seductive, and mesmerizing. Many, if not most of the locals wear them with pride. Small children, airport cleaning staff, shop keepers, and women of all ages proudly display their pearl collection with t-shirts, shorts and flip flops. It is said that the most colorful pearls come from the Gambiers because of their cooler waters.
How is a pearl created in its natural habitat? It occurs when a small grain of sand penetrates inside the pearl bearing oyster. The oyster cannot expel the intruder and begins its attack. This defense is in the form of a pearly secretion around the grain of sand which forms the pearl.
THE CULTURED PEARL
The “cultured pearl” is a jewel of the sea. It is the result of the coordinated efforts between nature, man, and the mother-of-pearl. The process to create a “cultured pearl” is a bit more of an adventure and an intrusion to the oyster. The cultured pearl is formed in a similar way, except with the intervention of man. The local pearl farmer will introduce a nucleus into the oyster and then let nature take its place.
In order to grow larger pearls, the farmer will extract a small pearl growing inside the oyster and insert a nucleus of the same size. It takes 14-18 months to grow a pearl and each oyster can grow 4-5 cultured pearls over the course of its life.
There are over 200 pearl farmers in the Gambiers. We met a few local pearl farmers, Eric and Eugene (Dada Keck) in Mangareva who showed us around each of their farms. Eric and his son have a pretty large operation on a small island called Gaioio (just off Totegeie and east of Mangareva). He sells between 200-250k pearls a year, mostly to China.
Eric and his son Eric’s island and house. Their house, pearl farm, and worker lodgings take up the entire island.
While Eugene has a smaller operation off the east side of Mangareva and produces about 100k pearls a year.
Eugene’s Pearl Farm is located over the water like most of the pearl farms in FP.
About 15 oyster shells are placed in nets and submerged 5-10 meters under water. They are strategically placed to receive the most sun. The color of the pearl and the shell will be determined by the amount of sun received and the strength of the oyster to open and close to receive the sun. If the shell is primarily green, then the pearl will be green. See the nets to the left of the worker.
Each net is removed from the water and cleaned with a pressure washer every 3 months. Cleaning the oyster shells helps them access sun and food easier and allows them to thrive better within the nets.
Here is a little collage that includes several steps:
- Oysters are collected in blue mesh bags (top, left corner image).
- They are cleaned and placed in a plastic, long, circular, corrugated tube and placed back in the ocean (top right corner image).
- Shells are prepped for cleaning (middle image).
- After harvest, shells are shipped off island.
CREATING A PEARL
A skilled worker will carefully open the oyster, less than a ½ inch, to insert the nucleus. The worker will then place the oyster shell back in the water for 14-18 months. The oyster will live through several harvest season, if it is bearing quality pearls.
Polynesians use all aspects of the oyster once the oyster is beyond pearl bearing age. Polynesians will use the meat for food and will prepare the oyster shells to be sold off island. Pearl farmers make about $50 per bag which weighs up to 60 kilos! That is a LOT of oyster shells for very little money.
HARVESTING THE PEARL
When the oyster is ready, the workers will collect the nets, remove the shells and carefully separate the pearls and meat from the shells. Eugene let us each dig inside the meat to remove the pearl. He then cut out the oyster to give us each a taste.
Living on a boat doesn’t scream for pearl jewelry. However strong the desire is to purchase one. Tourists can purchase pearls for 1/20th the price in the Gambiers. So, how do you determine a quality pearl?
How to Define the Quality of a Tahitian Pearl
Once it is certain that the pearly layer is sufficient, the experts consider 5 other classification criteria’s:
- Luster and shine
- Size (8-12mm)
- Shape (round, drop, baroque, circled)
- Surface quality (listed A, B, C, D)
We went to visit a pearl vendor who sold pearl jewelry out of his commercial kitchen. Yep, right next to the pots and pans was a small display of pearl jewelry. But what was truly interesting was another display of his prized relics or artifacts that he has been collecting for 50 years. The unusual thing was that the display looked like a mismatch of stuff until you looked closely.
He had a chief’s whale bone necklace (displayed by my friend Wilky from Agape), a precious tiara that his wife wore at their wedding (worn by Rachel from Agape) and many more stunning pieces. He also had 3 large vases full of lose pearls. Because, why not put precious pearls inside a vase?
One can buy loose pearls for as little as $2-$18 here. But then you have to know what you are looking for and have to find someone to make it into jewelry. And it is great to see how resourceful the Polynesians are with regards to the pearls. It is obvious they each take great pride in their pearls.