Harvesting French Polynesian Pearls

Pearl lovers will be intrigued by how French Polynesian pearls are harvested.  Last year, we learned a lot when we visited Dada’s pearl farm on the east side of Mangareva (see post).  This year I organized another pearl farm tour with a fresh batch of cruisers.  Lucky for us, they were harvesting the pearls so it was perfect timing.

We were anchored in the far NE corner of the Gambiers archipelago – near an island called Puaumu.  We had cruisers from 4 other boats join us on Sugar Shack where we made a short motor to the north side of Totegegie which is closer to the pearl farm.  From there we jumped in 2 dinghies and made our way across the lagoon to the pearl farm which was about 1.6 nm away.

Dada and his brother own the house (or shack) above the water, but they lease the space in the water.  Yep, they have to pay rent to have this facility in the water.  In addition, they rent the space where they farm their pearls which is about 3-5 miles away from their processing facility.

Dada's Pearl Farm

Dada’s Pearl Farm

Dada is an excellent teacher, tour guide, and host.  He speaks English wonderfully and has been featured in several magazines. 

The Process

Dada grows some of his oysters from babies.  However, he also has to supplement his stock by purchasing young oysters from “growers.”  These young oysters are placed in round netting in shallow water so they can be monitored as they grow.  After 3/5 months they are considered mature enough for the next phase.

Harvesting begins next.  The divers retrieve the nets and bring them to the processing facility (blue house over the water).  They are pressure washed and then expertly opened a smidge where a divider is placed.  Dada had two people doing this process.  You have to be very careful not to damage the oyster.  There is only a very small area on the oyster that can be opened.

Opening and inserting the dividiers

Opening and inserting the dividers

The prepped oysters are then moved to the “seeders.”  Dada’s seeders are actually stuck in China due to the virus so he had to rent seeders from another pearl farmer.  Harvesting is very specific to timing.  If Dada could not find seeders, he would stand to risk losing his harvest.

Harvesting

Harvesting is a meticulous job.  The workers arrive around 0800 and work until the days harvesting is done (usually around 5p-6p).  They work 5 days a week which doesn’t sound bad, but it is exhausting in its perfection.

The seeder takes the oyster shell with a divider in it and places it in a clamp.  Using long, skinny tools, they exam the oyster and check for sickness and colors. If the oyster is healthy, they will insert a nucleous to start the pearl process.  The nucleous is made of shell and comes in various sizes.  The nucleous’ are the little white balls in lower photo.  If you zoom in on the top photo you can see the pearl in the oyster’s pocket.

Insertion of nucleous & nucleous

Insertion of nucleous & nucleous

The divider is then removed and the shell is placed in a bucket.  Once the bucket is full, another worker comes in and ties the oyster back to the pocket nets and prepares it for the submersion process.

Seeding the Pearls

There were two seeders.  One was doing the initial seed (with the young oysters) and the other was doing a second seed.  The second seed removes the nucleous which is now covered in a pearl outer shell and inserts another nucleous the same size as the original pearl.  The pearls on the black cloth are sellable pearls.  The three blue buckets represent varying degrees of quality of pearls.  The white balls on the lower photo are nuclei waiting to be added.  A seeder can harvest between 700-900 pearls a day.  Imagine that tedious work over and over and over for 5 days a week, 10 months a year.

Tools of the Trade for the seeder

Tools of the Trade for the seeder

Oysters inside colors start to become more vibrant with the sun.  The colors of the shell are indicative of the colors of the pearl.  The 7-pocket nets with the newly seeded oysters are labeled with colored thread, and submerged 4-5 meters under the water for 18 months.  They are taken out every 3 months to be washed and cleaned to ensure healthy growth.  Typically, the oysters will only be out of the water for 45 minutes.

Using Every Part of the Oyster During Harvesting

Every single part of the oyster is used.  The pearl, the oyster (meat), the shell.  The meat is sold to locals who eat it. The shells are sold in bulk to buyers (usually China) who make buttons and jewelry.  The top photo is a bag full of shells being shipped to China.  The bottom photo are the broken shells that will be sold to different buyers.

Inside of the Oyster

Dada showed us the inside of the oyster which has 5 parts.  Top photo:  1 is the sack where the pearl grows.  It excretes the stuff that coats the nuclei and creates the pearl.  2: is the part of the oyster that grows from the inside of the shell to the outside.  It allows the oyster to “stick” on to other things like coral or rocks.  3: is the main part of the oyster that is edible raw.  Yep, I tried it!  4: is the part of the oyster that can be edible if prepared properly (we did not eat this part).  5: is the pearl.

Inside the oyster shell

Tools of the Trade for the seeder

The Oyster Business

Dada’s expenses as a pearl farmer:

  • Pays Tahiti rent for the water space under his pearl processing house (annual)
  • Tahiti is paid rent for the water where his oysters are placed inside the lagoon (annual)
  • $2500 per seeder (monthly
  • Transportation (to and from China), housing, food, and daily transport (annual)
  • Local workers including divers, boat drivers, pressure washers, and cleaners/openers
  • Shipping of pearls back to Tahiti to be evaluated.

Sure is an expensive to run a pearl farm.  Especially when you consider that only 40-50% of the oysters produce a sellable pearl and only 20-25% produce “quality” pearls.  Usually they sell their pearls in bulk to China or Japan which reduces the price even further. 

Right now, Dada’s pearl farm is generating 60,000 pearls.  Normally, he will produce 100,000 pearls a year so things are tight due to the virus.

Pearls are judged on their color.  French Polynesian pearls are known for their dark colors.  Deep blues, greens and purples.  The light-colored pearls are not desirable.  The pearl is also ranked by shine / luster and quality (lack of indents, marks, lines).  The final evaluation is the thickness of the pearl.  The distance from the outside to the nucleous.  This is done with a machine and not the naked eye. 

Makes you appreciate your pearls a little more.

An Abundance of Junk Pearls

Dada had invited us to visited him at his home in Rikitea.  So, a few weeks after our pearl farm visit, we met him onshore.  He had bags and bags and bags of pearls all over the place.  Most were considered “junk pearls” and are not sellable. But to us they were lovely.  He brought 5 or 6 bags of the junk pearls for us to come through.  There were thousands of pearls to go through and it was over whelming.

Bags and bags of discarded pearls

Bags and bags of discarded pearls

We had Dada turn a few of our pearls into jewelry which allowed us to watch yet another step in the life of a pearl. 

  • First, he expertly reviews he pearl to determine where to put the pendant hook. Usually he covers up an imperfection.
  • Next the pearl is placed in the grips and a thin drill is slowly guided to the desired location.
  • The pendant hook or earring backing is placed in the hole to ensure the depth is correct.
  • The pendant hook or earring backing is glued into place.
  • Vice grips are secured around the pearl to let the glue dry.
  • 5 hours later the jewelry is completed.
Dada creating some jewelry

Dada creating some jewelry

The group from left to right: Chris, Neils, Lynette, Me, Dada, Elainise, Missy, Yanell, Floris, Ivar, Fred and Jacques.

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