For reasons that remain mysterious, this article about Polynesia’s fascinating black pearls has been one of the most visited stories in our Travel Article Library for many years. We hope you find it as informative and enjoyable as many tens of thousands of readers have thus far. This article is excerpted from David Stanley’s South Pacific Handbook, now out of print.
French Polynesia’s cultured pearl industry, now second only to tourism as a money earner, originated in 1963 when an experimental farm was established on Hikueru atoll in the Tuamotu Islands east of Tahiti. However, the real boom in black pearls only began in the late 1980s. Today hundreds of cooperative and private pearl farms operate on 26 atolls, employing thousands of people.
Pearl quality is determined by the health and colors of its lagoon birthplace, in this case Kamoka Pearl Farm, Ahe lagoon, Tuamotu. Krackatoapartners.com
Pearl farming is drawing many people back to ancestral islands they abandoned after devastating hurricanes in 1983. It relieves pressure on natural stocks and creates an incentive to protect marine environments. Pollution from fertilizer runoff or sewage can make a lagoon unsuitable for pearl farming, which is why the farms are concentrated on lightly populated atolls where other forms of agriculture are scarcely practiced. On the down side, pearl farm workers often feed themselves with fish caught in the local lagoons, leading to a big decline in marine life.
The color of the host shell influences the color and luster of the pearl it produces. Krackatoapartners.com
Unlike the Japanese cultured white pearl, the Polynesian black pearl is created only by the giant blacklipped oyster, Pinctada margaritifera, which thrives in the Tuamotu lagoons. Beginning in the 19th century the oysters were collected by Polynesian divers who could dive up to 40 meters or 130 feet. The shell was made into striking mother-of-pearl buttons. Of course, finding a highly-prized pearl this way was pure chance.
By the middle of the 20th century over-harvesting had depleted the naturally slow-growing oyster beds; today wild oysters are collected only to supply cultured-pearl farms. The strings of oysters must be monitored constantly and lowered or raised
It takes around three years for a pearl to form in a seeded oyster. A spherical pearl is formed when a Mississippi River mussel graft from Tennessee is introduced inside the coat; the oyster only creates a hemispherical half pearl if the graft goes between the coat and the shell. Half pearls are much cheaper than real pearls and make outstanding rings and pendants. Some of the grafts used are surprisingly large and the layer of nacre around such pearls may be relatively thin, but only an X-ray can tell. Thin coating on a pearl greatly reduces its value.
Pearl farms are set near shallow atolls, just inside a lagoon.Kamoka Pearl Farm. Krackatoapartners.com
The cooperatives sell their production at auctions on Tahiti held twice a year. Local jewelers vie with Japanese buyers at these events, with some 60,000 black pearls in 180 lots changing hands for about US$7 million. Private producers sell their pearls through independent dealers or plush retail outlets in the capital, Papeete. Every year about a million black pearls worth US$150 million are exported to Japan, Hong Kong, the U.S., France, and Switzerland, making the territory the world’s second-largest source of loose pearls (after Australia which produces the smaller yellow pearls). To control quality and pricing, the export of loose reject pearls is prohibited, although finished jewelry is exempt.
Kamoka Pearls, www.kamokapearls.com, with many illustrations featured in this article, offers producer/wholesale direct prices while promoting eco-production techniques resulting in the highest quality pearls in terms of colors, size, luster. It is one of the few pearl farmers with strict rules against fishing their portion of the lagoon and against cleaning shells with pressure hoses. By adding more manual labor during movement of pearl seed strands, the fish actually feed and clean the shells, removing a major source of lagoon destruction. Pressure cleaning attracts billions of anenomes which eventually suffocate the lagoon itself.
In 1982 research began into the possibility of creating a similar cultured-pearl industry in the Cook Islands. The first commercial farms were set up on Manihiki atoll in 1989 and over two million cultured oysters are presently held there. By 1994 the Manihiki lagoon was thought to be approaching its maximum sustainable holding capacity and farms began to be established on Penrhyn atoll. Hundreds of thousands of oysters are presently held at the various farms, and the Penrhyn hatchery is constantly producing more.
To establish a farm, an investment of US$3,000 is required, and no return will be forthcoming for five years. There are currently over 300 farms with just 20 percent of them accounting for 80 percent of the oysters. The oysters are seeded once or twice a year by Japanese, Chinese, and Cook Islands experts screened
Fluctuations in water temperature and overstocking can affect the amount of plankton available for the oysters to eat and reduce the quality of the pearls. Rising water temperatures and overcrowding can have an immediate impact, as demonstrated by an algal bloom at Manihiki in 2001 which killed 15 percent of seeded oysters, leading to an estimated loss of US$20 million over five years.
Annual production is around 200 kilograms, with Japanese and Chinese dealers the big buyers. Black pearls are the Cook Islands’ largest export by far, bringing in US$10 million a year and employing 700 people. Fortunately a major hurricane at Manihiki in 1997 did little harm to the underwater oysters although surface facilities were destroyed.
Cultured oyster growth and health are monitored closely by farm divers. Tahiti Tourisme.
As with any gemstone, prices vary with size and quality. A radiant, perfectly round, smooth, and flawless pearl with a good depth of metallic green/blue can sell for many times more than a similar pearl with only one or two defects. The luster is more important than the color. Size can vary from eight millimeters to 20 millimeters with the larger pearls that much more expensive.
A single high quality black pearl sells for about US$1,000. Tahiti Tourisme.
Black pearls are now in fashion in Paris, so don’t expect many bargains. A first-class necklace can cost as much as US$50,000 and individual pearls of high quality cost US$1,000 and up. Slightly flawed pearls are much cheaper (beginning at US$100). The “baroque” pearls still make exquisite jewelry when mounted in gold and platinum.
Consider purchasing a loose pearl and having it mounted back home. If you think you might do this, check with your local jeweler before leaving for Tahiti. Half the fun is in the shopping, so be in no hurry to decide and don’t let yourself be influenced by a driver or guide who is after a commission. If no guide is involved, the shop should pay the commission to you in the form of a discount (be sure to ask).
It’s preferable to buy pearls at a specialized outlet rather than a souvenir shop, and never buy a pearl from a person on the street. A reputable dealer will always give you an invoice or certificate verifying the authenticity of your pearl. If you’ve made an expensive choice, ask the dealer to make a fresh X-ray right in front of you in order to be sure of the quality.
David Stanley has spent much of the past three decades on the road. He has crossed six continents overland and visited 177 of the planet’s 245 countries and territories. His travel guidebooks to the South Pacific, Micronesia, Alaska, Eastern Europe, and Cuba opened those areas to budget travelers for the first time. He is now retired.
Check out Tahiti Tourism and Cook Islands Tourism. See also South Pacific maps and travel guides to Tahiti, Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu, Easter Island, and many more Island nations.
Interested in other South Pacific feature articles on this website? Check out our magazine’s South Pacific Travel Theme Page which presents all richly-illustrated stories in our collection that showcase destination articles featuring the region. We particularly recommend the French Polynesia freighter cruise article by Margie Goldsmith.