Pearls Of Wisdom
French Polynesia is famous for Tahitian pearls – better known as black pearls – an organic gem fashioned from the black lip oyster. The pearls come in a variety of colours, with overtones and hues of dark green, aubergine and blue through to grey, silver, coral-pink, gold and yellow.
In French Polynesia, the best pearls apparently come from The Gambier Archipelago, which is renowned for its peacock colours. But other islands, such as Taha’a in the Society Islands, also produce great pearls.
We’ve seen beautiful pearls for sale in Tahiti and Moorea, but thought, before breaking out the credit card, we should take a pearl farm tour. While sailing along the west coast of Taha’a, we saw a sign saying free tours on the dock of the Love Here Pearl Farm. Perfect.
This farm has been in operation since 2006, and produces about 250,000 pearls a year, the best of which get flown to Hong Kong and Japan to be auctioned.
A bag of pearls ready to export to Hong Kong and Japan
It’s a serious operation, employing about 15 staff when running at full capacity, who harvest around 1,000 pearls per day. The owner of the farm, a very jolly Polynesian, had his counting and sorting desk perched over the lagoon with Bora Bora in the back ground. As offices go, it takes some beating.
The view from the office at the Love Here Pearl Farm – with Bora Bora in the background
The farm had just been allowed to reopen after lockdown, and the tour was given by Belinda, a Tahitian girl who spoke excellent English. It covered all the basics from what makes a Grade A pearl, what flaws to look out for, and how the pearls are grafted into a live oyster and then harvested.
The grafting process of a farmed pearl is fascinating. Small marble-like beads – made in China from crushed Mississippi pearl shell – are shipped by their thousand to French Polynesia. These balls are then inserted into the stomach of a live oyster, along with a small piece of flesh from another donor oyster, which influences the colour of the pearl being produced. The oyster is then put in a cage with hundreds of others and left in the lagoon for 18 months, after which they are harvested.
The harvesting is done by carefully opening the oyster using clamps, and removing the pearl without harming the oyster. The pearl is then replaced with a crushed shell marble and the oyster is returned to the lagoon for another 12 months, until it’s time for a second harvest.
About 60% of the oysters make it to a second harvest. A further 10% go on to have a third and, very occasionally, a fourth harvest. Each time the pearl removed is a little bit bigger, so the corresponding crushed shell ball that goes back in is matched in size, leading to much bigger pearls.
When we visited, the harvest taking place was an ‘oyster sacrifice’ where the oysters are split open, the pearl removed and the edible parts of the oyster saved for consumption. The other parts were put aside for fish food and the shells kept for making mother-of-pearl jewellery, belts, combs and mirror frames. Nothing was wasted.
With the borders still closed in French Polynesia, there’s a distinct lack of tourists, so the price of pearls is fantastic. We were offered 50% off the list price in many cases.
Our guide shows off some mother-of-pearl
The cost of the pearl is based on its size and shape – with perfectly round and teardrop pearls being the most expensive – but the colour, surface quality, lustre and nacre thickness are also taken into consideration.
To help with choosing a pearl, there is an official classification of A, B, C and D.
Category A pearls have a very high lustre with less than 10% imperfection on the surface; while Category D could be low in lustre and with over two thirds of imperfections.
Tahitian pearls are usually between eight to 12 mm in size, and the Love Here Pearl Farm were very proud of an 18mm pearl, the largest pearl they have ever cultivated.
At 18mm, this is the largest pearl the Love Here Pearl Farm has in its collection
After our tour, the most important thing we discovered, is that black pearls are an incredibly personal taste, sadly the colours and shapes being offered on the day we visited did not peak our interest… so, the search for a black pearl for the First Lady continues!
Written by Skipper
© Two Drifters Travel