Tahitian pearls come in all kind of colors, shapes and shades. Unequalled and irresistible “poe rava”, the rare pearl, as it’s called in its homeland, French Polynesia.
The Tahitian pearl comes from a specific species of oyster, the Pinctada margaritifera, that thrives in the warmth of Polynesian waters.
For the last forty years, the Polynesian islands, especially the Tuamotu-Gambier islands, have been living at the pace of the Pearl Culture;
© Raymond SAHUQUET
Pearl farming is a very long process. After four years of intense and attentive care, the oysters produce only small amounts of marketable pearls. Round pearls are already very rare, flawless ones are priceless.
With their iridescence and unequalled size, they are a legendary jewel. With the incredible diversity of shades and glows, they are just fascinating.
Although often called a "black pearl”, they can be from light gray to ivory, with pink, lagoon blue, green or golden undertones. This infinite range of colors is the result of natural alchemy. Temperature, depth, color of the oyster, water salt and minerals content are only a few of the variables that will give the pearl its unique color.
Through this article, Tahiti Tourism wants to share with you the incredible story of one of the largest treasure of French Polynesia. From its discovery to its farming process, you will know everything about the cultured Tahitian pearl and how to recognize the most valuable ones.
One of the most romantic legends in French Polynesia tells that the moon floods the ocean with its light to charm oysters to the surface and thus infuse them with the blessed dew of the gods. Pearls are born of this union.
Another French Polynesian legend tells that our oysters are called Te Ufi, name of the daughter of Okana, the corals spirit and Varo, the sand spirit. Te Ufi was wearing the most beautiful dress, as shiny as the most colorful fish of her realm.
© T. Zysma
She was so beautiful that Oro, the god of peace and fertility, went down to Earth, riding a rainbow, and gave her the pearl as a gift to human beings. The iridescence of Tahitian Pearls is the reflection of Te Ufi’s dress and Oro’s rainbow.
© Gregoire LE BACON
99% of French Polynesia’s cultured pearls are produced in the Tuamotu – Gambier archipelagoes. This chain islands and atolls is spanning across the Pacific Ocean, east of Tahiti. Cooperatives and private of pearl farms can be found on 27 of these atolls. Pearl oysters only thrive in the purest lagoons. Only the clearest water will allow the privilege of giving birth to our oceanic gem.
To prevent pollution and contamination from our over industrialized world, these atolls have limited access. They are located far from the touristic roads so that seaplanes and boats are the only way to get there. Pearl farms are usually self-sufficient, growing organic vegetables and chickens. They also rely on solar systems for their energy.
Natural pearls can occur without men’s intervention. A grain of sand would find its way into the shell of an oyster and get trapped inside. To defend itself, the oyster would discharge a substance to envelop the foreign object. As a result, the grain of sand gets covered with successive layers of substance that will crystalize into a natural pearl.
These pearls are extremely rare and thus very valuable. 10000 to 15000 wild oysters would need to be opened to have a chance to find a pearl. Starting in the 19th century, Polynesian would drive up to 50 meters to harvest oysters and hope for a treasure inside it. As you can imagine, only the luckiest would ever discover one. This is why, pearl farmers are now trying to recreate the natural process in a controlled way.
In the 60th French Polynesia imported an implantation process from Japan: Instead of waiting for a grain of sand to naturally slip into the shell, professional grafters insert an implant inside the mature oyster. This spherical graft, called a nucleus, can be of different sizes. The oyster will then cover this round graft and thus create a bigger and more round pearl. The best pearls are obtained by using an implant made from the shell of a Mississippi river mussel.
When the English scientist, Hugh Cuming, visited French Polynesia in 1830, he discovered the giant oyster and gave it the name of “Pinctada Margaritifera”.
Pinctada is a genus of saltwater clams, a marine bivalve molluscs. The Margaritifera, commonly known as black-lipped oyster, present an ivory lace on the edge of its flesh. Fully-grown, this species can measure between 25 and 30 cm and weight up to 5 kg. Polynesian pearls are only produced by this type of oyster.
Now very famous for its unequalled pearls, the Pinctada Margaritifera has always been used as raw materialfor mother-of-pearl pendants, buttons and other jewelry.
In French, the word “nacre” (mother-of-pearl) comes from the persian word “Nakar”, which means “shimmering ornament”
Farm pearl oyster are cultivated underwater on structures called collectors.
During the breeding season, these collectors, especially designed for this purpose, are immersed close by the mature oysters for the larvae to fix themselves onto.
A year at least is necessary for the larvae to grow up and metamorphose into a young nacre that can be handled. The collectors can then be brought back to the pearl farm.
Throughout their lives, these young oysters will be able to be grafted several times and thus produce a few pearls
© Gilles DIRAIMONDO
At 2 to 3 years old, oysters are about 12 cm long. They are now mature and can be detached from their nursery and moved to a location closed to the grafting room. Most pearl farms are constructed on piers to bring the workers closer to their oysters. Grafting is a real surgery. Before beginning the process, the oyster is cleaned to remove parasites and germs. The grafting process is accomplished by a professional grafter and has to be done within 30 seconds.
The oyster is brought to the work bench and its shell is slightly spread to allow the tools to fit in without hurting the mollusk. More than 1,5 cm would risk to tear the muscle and kill the oyster.
© Gregoire LE BACON
The grafter selects, from a range of healthy oysters, the one that will be sacrificed to provide the grafts. Small segments of this nacre are cut and stored to be inserted inside the other oysters.
The grafter begins by incising the gonad (sex organ of the oyster) to create a cavity and then places inside the nucleus and graft. He then closes the oyster and places it in a tray, sloped to prevent the implants to slide out of place. Before being put back in the sea, the grafter oysters are placed in individual pouches that will catch the nucleus in case of rejection.
This allows the farmers to know which oyster won’t produce a pearl
© R SAHUQUET
About 18 months later, the pearl is removed from the oyster. If the pearl is considered of good quality, the oyster is re-implanted. The grafter then chooses a nucleus that is the same size as the one removed from the pearl and inserts it back in the same place. Another 18 to 24 month later, the same process is repeated, giving a bigger pearl each time.
Some pearl farms are able to harvest up to 4 times from the same oyster and to get pearls over 15mm.
18mm pearls are rare and can take a long time to get: 2.5 to 3 years before the first graft, then 4 cycles of 18 to 24 months each. The complete process thus takes 9 to 11 years for pearls over 15mm. Trying to speed the process by implanting a bigger graft only results in failure
© Gregoire LE BACON
Harvested pearls can then be measured, scaled, sorted by shape and appraised to be fitted on jewelry. This is the beginning of a new life. The perfect marriage between man and nature !
Tahitian black pearls have only been on the jewelry market for 30 years. They are praised all over the world for their size and specific dark colors with countless overtones and undertones. Known as Tahitian pearls, they should be called Polynesian pearls.
Tahitian black pearls are of great value on the pearls market. They are larger than most concurrent pearls, have unique colors, sheens and tones, and their production process takes longer. Their value is also related to demand as there is less Tahitian pearls produced than Akoya pearls (Japanese pearls).
(informations from deliberation 2005-42)
The color of the Tahitian pearls is the strongest reason for its value. There are 3 groups of colors:
Each black-lipped oyster produces a different color of pearls, which varies according to the chemical reaction happening inside the shell.
Most farmers believe that in 80% of cases, the graft is the main factor. Its shade and quality are very important. This is why they choose the graft with so much care.
Others believe that environmental factors are what dictates the shade of the pearl: water salinity and other mineral contents, quantity and quality of food, depth are only some of the variables
In addition to shape and color, the luster is also something that varies between pearls. Ranked from “good enough” to “excellent”, it has metallic reflection, especially on baroque pearls.
Most of Tahitian pearls have some stains or marks. The amount of these imperfections differs a lot between pearls. Most pearls have at least one flaw that will be hidden with the mounting.
The rare perfect pearls, without a defect are called “Top Gems.
A pearl already mounted on a piece of jewelry can’t be called a Top Gem because it can’t be proven to be flawless.
In French Polynesia, there is a set of norms ruling the pearls market. First of all, pearls need to have a minimum nacre thickness of 0.8 mm to be sold as a Tahitian pearl.
The quality of the pearl surface is defined by different grades. They are ranked accordingly to visible imperfections and luster.
a) The surface condition is assessed based on the importance of the smooth surface without any imperfection. The pearl's surface may have some defects such as bites, scratches, cavities, ridges, grooves, bumps, organic deposits, calcite deposits or blemish;
b) The sheen or luster or gloss ranks the reflection of light on the surface of the pearl. According to the reflection, you can tell the uniformity of the thickness and arrangement of nacre layers.An excellent luster corresponds to a total reflection of light, giving a mirror effect. A pearl without luster means a mate finish.
© Gregoire LE BACON
Pairing is an operation that requires professional’s skills. Indeed, because of the wide range of colors, shapes and sizes, it is difficult to find two identical Tahitian pearls.That is why this gem is known worldwide for its uniqueness.
So, choosing the right pearl is a hard task. The safest is to follow the recommendations of a professional seller or you can go wild and just go with your heart and pick the ones that match your tastes. Given its many features, it is difficult to advocate objective guidelines for choosing a pearl. In all cases, it is strongly recommended to seek a certificate of authenticity for each pearl, indicating the origin of the Polynesian pearl size, shape and color.
However, there’s in Papeete, Tahiti, a "Center of the Pearl of Information" dedicated to the knowledge of this ocean gem, where you can participate in pearl initiations that will allow you to make your purchases of Tahitian pearls with confidence.
Phone : (689) 87 79 36 14
The Tahitian cultured pearl is made of aragonite crystals at 95%. To keep it shine the pearl will need to some maintenance.
You should :
Jeanne Lecourt, President of FSW work alongside Marcelle Howard to bring together international players and partners of the Pearl to sensitize the government to protect and highlight this French rare jewel.
They’re committed to enhancing this Polynesian gem through various actions, by organizing study tours (the first was held with a group of Danish jewelers in October 2014) and assisting jewelers and their sales teams in marketing this pearl. They also, oversee any misuse of the Tahitian pearls name and image by international companies. Finally, they inform their members of all international and local developments in the pearl industry.