Pearls Of Tahiti,
At The Source Of Its Beauty
A rare and precious gem present in only a few lagoons in our islands, the Tahiti cultured pearl is the product of a patient human work and unique environmental conditions. From this difficult and rare encounter, a natural prodigy is born. Immerse yourself in this very complex genesis.
The pearl oyster seems to have been known by the Polynesians way before the arrival of the Europeans. They used mother of pearl to make weapons or ornaments. When they had the rare luck of finding a natural pearl, they would keep it preciously in a small bag made of vegetal fiber. This way, it would add to its lucky owner’s assets, without however being used as trading money as it was thought of being a present from the gods.
Unable to pierce it or to insert it, they could only keep the pearl preciously and admire it after taking it out of the bag they used as a jewelry case. Still, one (and let alone several) beautiful black pearls would tremendously increase the prestige of their lucky owners.
While it was the Chinese who invented the cultured pearl, the grafting process and the farming techniques were brought from Japan to Polynesia by a Frenchman named Jean-Marie Domard in 1960. In 1962, he was able to graft over five thousand oysters. Three years later he obtained over a thousand very high quality pearls. Polynesian pearl farming was born! Today the activities linked to pearls are a non-negligible part of the Polynesian economy. The Tahiti cultured pearl is used by the world’s greatest jewelers and represents a key element of Polynesia’s image throughout the world.
The Lagoon, A delicate And Fragile Universe
In order for the pinctada margaritifera oyster to grow and offer to mankind this fabulous treasure which is a pearl, whether it is natural – and called also fine pearl – or cultured, the calm and clear water of a lagoon is required. This is a necessary but not a sufficient condition as, for example, enclosed lagoons (i.e. without a pass opening to the ocean) do not encourage its development. The water’s salt content and temperature tend to exceed the limits that allow the oyster’s normal development. Also indispensable, is the specific “poverty” of the South Pacific water in phytoplankton and in salt. This poverty by the way is, among other things, an element responsible for the great transparence of the water and therefore for the very specific colors of the Polynesian lagoons. Currents caused by the motions of tides entering and leaving the lagoon through the passes, the depth and the nature of the bottom of the lagoon also play a major role. Finally, in order to grow under optimal conditions, the natural pearl oyster needs a rocky support to anchor itself and resist to the current and to supply important nutritional elements.
The natural environment where the Polynesian pearl oyster grows is therefore an ecosystem of extreme fragility. Thus a change of two or three degrees in the water average temperature would seriously endanger all the animal and vegetal species that populate the lagoons. The same is true regarding the rise in water level predicted by environmental specialists. A few more centimeters of water and the coral reef would no longer act as a natural protection, it would let the swells enter directly into the lagoon and destroy irremediably the entire ecosystem if such abnormal filling were to happen too frequently. Finally, pollution generated by man also represents a major risk for the very fragile equilibrium of lagoon systems.
Pearl Farmer, A Job Like No Others
Producing a pearl means to go through all the following steps: producing the spawns, collecting them and raising them to maturity, grafting adult oysters, following up on them and taking care of them during the entire maturation period and finally harvesting the pearls. This whole production process requires over four years of hard work.
In general, the spawns, which look like strings of very young oysters, are not produced by the pearl farmers themselves, but by specialized producers. Their job consists in collecting oyster larvae in full water areas, then to raise these larvae until they become young two-valve shells.
The pearl farmer’s first job consists in preparing the spawns to bring them to maturity. This step is called “raising”. The young oysters are generally attached in strings on lines, which are themselves dipped in the water at the right depth and in carefully selected lagoon areas. Every three to five centimeters (1 ½ to 2”) along these lines of a maximum length of 1.90 meters (6’ 4”). Under the constant supervision of the farm’s divers, they stay there until they reach the size necessary to be grafted, i.e. about a year. Such supervision is indispensable as the mother of pearl is fragile and has to be regularly cleaned from seaweeds and other parasites living on its shell.
Birth Of A Tahiti Pearl
In reality, a pearl is the product of the oyster’s natural defense mechanism. A pearl can be born when a grain of sand enters the oyster’s shell. The oyster then will cover that sand with successive layers of mother of pearl until the intruder is totally covered, this will take years. But they would have become an integral part of the oyster. In nature, this phenomenon seldom happens. To harvest just one natural pearl requires on average to collect 15,000 pearl oysters, which shows how low such probability is. This explains why in every human society, a natural pearl has always been considered such a precious possession.
But today, all the “true” pearls sold in the world are actually so-called cultured pearls. The process consists in artificially introducing the “grain of sand” to force the oyster to produce mother of pearl, and hence a pearl. Other than the farmed oyster is raised, watched and taken care of during its whole growth and its period of production, two essential elements differentiate natural pearls from cultured pearls. The first one, fundamental for the pearl’s size and shape, is the replacement of the natural grain of sand by a nucleus. It is a perfect bead made from the shell of a two-valve mollusk that lives exclusively in the Mississippi waters and which is introduced by hand inside the oyster. The second is the introduction of a graft in the oyster. This is a chip of mother of pearl taken from another pinctada margaritifera carefully selected for its color, as it is what will determine the finished pearl’s shade of color and its orient. It should be noted that while in the past few years, other countries like Japan and China namely, have been producing cultured black pearls, only the cultured Pearl of Tahiti comes naturally adorned in this much particular dress, which makes it truly unique.
Then comes the crucial phase of grafting. The oysters must be taken out of the water, cleaned, opened one by one, the nucleus and the graft must be introduced, then the oysters are reattached to their support and dipped back in the water. The job of a grafter requires know-how and an unquestionable competence as the crop’s percentage of success depends on the quality of his work.
So after over fifty months of intense efforts, it is estimated that out of two hundred oysters raised, a hundred of them will reach the grafting stage. Out of this one hundred, only less than thirty will produce a pearl good enough to sell. And in this number, there won’t be more than 3% of truly beautiful or perfect pearls. These figures explain the scarcity of the cultured pearl of Tahiti.
The oysters which gave the best-looking pearls are again grafted, but with nucleus of a larger diameter. This way, the same oyster can give a maximum, for the most productive specimens, of up to three or four pearls successively. For the others, some mother of pearl is used for local arts and crafts, whether in jewelry or by artisans who make “curios”.
The Future Of The Black Pearl Of Tahiti
Pearl farming is, today, one of Polynesia’s main resources. It employs about seven thousand persons located for most in the Tuamotu, the Gambier and the Society Archipelagos. After a start with less than two kilos in 1978, the production reached five tons of pearls in 2005. Most of them are exported to Asia and the United States following auctions in Polynesia and Hong Kong.
However environmental threats are hovering today over Polynesian pearl farming. The warming of the ocean water represents a major risk for the entire industry. But the rise in water level (of which nobody today can predict its amplitude) threatens also all the atolls’ lagoon systems, therefore also the pearl farms in the first place. It still remains that the Black Pearl of Tahiti still generates dreams and still adorns the neck and the ears of the world’s most beautiful women.
The Black Pearl Under Magnifying Glass
The criteria that define a Black Pearl of Tahiti are, in principle, very strict: the nucleus used measure 4 to 12 millimeters in diameter, depending on the size and the quality of the pearl expected to be produced, it can never be less than 0.8 millimeters.
If these criteria are met, the pearls are sorted in function of their degree of perfection. All those that are flawed in shape or in quality are taken out and destroyed in order to maintain the standard of quality.
The selected pearls are then sorted in batches by varieties of size, quality, color and beauty. Only these pearls duly selected and inventoried are offered for sale.
The Pearl In Polynesian Mythology
In Polynesian mythology, pearls were the first jewelry cases of light given by the Creator to Tane, the God of Order and Beauty. Tane turned them into the stars before he sent them to Rua Hatu, the God of the ocean, so he could bring light to his realm.
Later, the God Oro, a divinity of war and peace, offered them to the human women he coveted. After this was done, he put the mother of all these beauties, the pearl oyster, “te ufi” into the hands of the humans, so they would never forget his time on earth.
Since that time, “Te ufi” of the “pinctada margaritifera” oyster has been prospering in the lagoons of French Polynesia. This treasure, secret of the coral islands, has been considered as a royal symbol. Symbol of transcendence, tradition sees in the pearl oyster the representation of the universal matrix that contains magical and creative forces, as the pearl is the perfect creation.