Polynesian Black Pearls

Polynesian Black PearlsAccording to myth, the Polynesian god Oro descended to earth on a rainbow to present a Bora Bora princess with a black pearl. Later pearls appeared in the mourning costumes of Tahitian priests at the funerals of important chiefs. The commercial quest for pearls began around 1870 as island divers wearing only tiny goggles plunged effortlessly to depths of 25 to 30 meters in the Tuamotu lagoons to collect oysters. Finding a pearl this way was one chance in 15,000 and the real objective was the shell, which could be made into mother-of-pearl buttons. By 1960, over-harvesting had depleted the slow-growing oyster beds and today live oysters are collected only to supply cultured-pearl farms. The shell is now a mere by-product, made into decorative items.

French Polynesia’s cultured-pearl industry is now second only to tourism as a money earner, providing around 10,000 jobs. It all began in 1963 when an experimental farm was established on Hikueru atoll in the Tuamotu Islands. The first commercial farm opened on Manihi in 1968, but the real boom began only in the late 1980s and today hundreds of cooperative and private pearl farms operate on 26 atolls, employing thousands of people. Although small companies and family operations are still able to participate in the industry, pearl production is becoming increasingly concentrated in a few hands because of the vertical integration of farming, wholesaling, and retailing. Robert Wan’s Tahiti Perles now controls more than half the industry and the next four companies account for another quarter of production.

The relative newness of this gemstone is reflected in varying prices. 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 eight to 20 millimeters, with the larger pearls that much more expensive. Black pearls are in fashion in Paris, so don’t expect any 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, but slightly flawed pearls are much cheaper (beginning at US$100). The “baroque” pearls still make exquisite jewelry when mounted in gold and platinum. In recent years, prices have even come down as production begins to exceed demand.

(Text from Moon Tahiti published by Avalon Travel – reproduction prohibited.)