Tag Archives: rikitea

Hand-Carved Oyster Shell

The Art of Hand Carving Oyster Shells

I met Stefan, a local teacher and designer of stunning hand-carved oyster shells. He had an amazing display of carved oyster shells at the Heritage Festival.  I was mesmerized immediately, but having just arrived was reluctant to drop any money on souvenirs. We chatted in broken French/English and I instantly liked him.  He told me where he lived so I could look at his entire collection.

My new friends decided to come with me to visit Stefan, after I shared my enthusiasm about his work.  They too were intrigued and wanted to see more.  So, we set out to find Stefan.  Behind the blue church, across a small bridge, and down the street we arrived at his house and studio.

Stefan’s Hand-Carved Oyster Shell Business

He and his wife just started a small business a few months ago.  When we arrived, they put out a black table cloth and lovingly laid out each of the 40+ unique, hand-carved oyster shells.  Some were carved on the outside, some on the inside, and a few on both sides.  He used pearls as legs to raise some of the shells as well.

You can see a larger collection of Stefan’s work on Instagram @Gambierscarving.


It is difficult to imagine how they are able to carve such intricate designs onto these extremely fragile shells.

They are playing around with new designs as well.  Check out this lamp with the St. Michael church.

Oyster Shell Light

Oyster Shell Light

He is also carving individual pearls.  This is a new Tahitian trend that is becoming wildly popular.

Hand carved pearls

Hand carved pearls

In addition to the hand-carved oyster shells and pearls, he also had a warrior necklace and local honey for sell.  By the time we were all done, the group had purchased 15 items from him and put a large dent in his inventory.  He had invited us back the next day to see how the carving process was done.

Early the next day, 6 of us headed back to Stefan’s house.

The Process of Carving an Oyster Shell

  • Stefan purchases bags of oyster shells and discards the damaged and broken ones. The remaining shells are left in a pile in his yard, by his shop for future master pieces.
  • The shells are then scrubbed clean on both sides.
  • Then the exterior is sanded down
  • Buffed to a pretty shine (both sides)
  • Designed (pencil first, then ink)
  • Carved
  • Buffed
  • Ready to sell
Process of Carving an Oyster Shell

Process of Carving an Oyster Shell

A gift to visiting delegates

Stefan is presenting a gift to a group of politicians coming to the island.  It is an oyster shell sitting on top of another shell.  And oh how I wished to be the recipient of one of those stunning pieces.  We watched as his worker drew the design on one of the shells.  The photo below shows her drawing the design (upper left), a damaged shell that was punctured) and the final shell (bottom)

Intricate Designs

Intricate Designs

Trying my hand at carving

He let me have a go at trying to carve a shell.  It was really difficult to use the dremel on such a delicate shell.  But, I managed not to damage me or the shell.  It didn’t look really pretty, but I made it.

Trying my hand at carving

Trying my hand at carving

Stefan had a container full of “discarded” or “bad” pearls.  We did not understand how can a pearl be so bad that it is relegated to a container or vase?  They have funny shapes, colors, no luster or odd sizes.  He graciously allowed us to select 10 pearls each!

Stefan and his collection

Stefan and his collection

And as a special bonus for bringing so many people to his home to purchase his wares, he provided me with a beautiful, personalized oyster shell of my own.

Sugar Shack's Oyster Shell

Sugar Shack’s Oyster Shell

Stefan became a great friend to all of us.  He introduced us to many local resources, shared plenty of meals, enjoyed a few BBQ’s and created lots of god memories.

That’s just a smidgeon of the kindness we have received in the Gambiers.  The locals are kind, the island is beautiful, and life is good.

Here are few of Stefan’s amazing pieces of art:





Did you miss our blog on French Polynesia Pearls?  Click here.

Mangareva, Gambiers

The Gambier Islands are comprised of 14 islands, but only 5 of which are inhabited.  Mangareva is the largest island comprising 56% of the total land mass in the archipelago and yet it is small.  The total population is around 1,300 and the island is only 6 square miles.  Rikitea is its main town and is where the majority of the population live.  This set of islands lay well over 1,000nm southeast from Tahiti.

Polynesian mythology tells of Mangareva being lifted from the ocean floor by the demi-god Maui. The mountains of Mangareva rise over the surrounding islands and the luminous lagoon like a great cathedral. Although once the center for Catholicism in Polynesia, the people of Mangareva have returned to a more traditional Polynesian lifestyle.

Gambiers Archipelago

Gambiers Archipelago


Many ruins can be found in the main village of Rikitea.  Among these archaeological relics are a convent, a triumphal arch, several watchtowers, a prison, and a court that have survived from the 1800’s.Most of these abandoned remains are dark and eerie feeling.

The island has become an important supply source for the Tahitian cultured pearl industry. With its cool waters and protected reefs, it supplies the majority of the pearls to Tahiti in a magnificent range of colors.

The largest and oldest monument of French Polynesia is the Cathedral Saint Michael of Rikitea.  It was originally built in 1848 and renovated in 2012.

St. Michael Church in Mangareva

This neo-gothic Catholic church was church was constructed of fired limestone and the alter is inlaid with iridescent mother-of-pearl shell.

St. Michael Church Alter

As the cradle of Catholicism in Polynesia, Gambier features hundreds of religious buildings built by missionaries and islanders alike between 1840-70. These include churches, presbyteries, convents, schools and observation towers.

St. Michael’s Church Rectory

Across the path from St. Michael of Rikitea Church is a well-maintained 140-year old rectory, occupied by the parish priest.

St. Michael’s Rectory

Relics in Rikitea

Several archaeological relics can be found by wandering around Rikitea including several watchtowers and some beautiful arches.  Most of these abandoned remains are dark and foreboding.

Rikitea Ruins

St Joseph

St. Joseph was built before 1866.  It might have been a church at one point, but now it is unfortunately rundown relic.  The columns were made of shells and the walls were made of concrete.  To the left of the church are a pair of beautifully carved statues.  Below is a photo Matt and I with a few of our friends from Agape (Josh), and Haylcon (Becca, John, Andrew).

St Joseph Monument

There is one main road around the entire island.  It is shared by pedestrians, trucks, motor bikes, dogs and hogs.

Rikitiea Main Road

Fueling in Rikitea

The island of Rikitea receives a supply ship every 2-3 weeks.  The ship brings in fresh fruits, veggies, fuel, supplies, furniture, boats, and just about anything the island needs.  It also loads up with packages and containers to take back to Tahiti.

After our 3500nm passage from Chile, we desperately needed diesel.  There are three ways you can get fuel.  You can bring your boat up next to the supply ship and a cement dock (not appealing), you can fill jerry cans (we needed 600 liters which would take us days to fill), or you can put a 200-liter barrel into your dinghy and back to your boat.  We opted for the last option.

We ended up buying fuel for 4 boats.  Sugar Shack took 600 liters and Argo, Agape and Halcyon each took 200 liters.  Argo used the jerry can method, but Agape and Halcyon followed in our footsteps by loading the barrel into their dinghies and siphoning into their tanks.  We luckily used our pump and filter, but still the process took over 6 hours (2.5 hours to order 3.5 hours to fill).

Fueling up at Mangareva

There is very little access to wifi on the island.  In fact, there is really only one place where you can find a trace of internet and that is JoJo’s.  Usually, you can sit at the restaurant side of JoJo’s when they are open, but more often than not, they are closed.  When that happens, or when cruisers just can’t afford to eat out, they congregate on the driveway in search of the wee bit of access they can find.

Cruisers internetting

Despite the many days of howling 25kt winds, white caps in the anchorage and rain, we did have some lovely sunsets.