There isn’t much to do on the atoll of Rangiroa in the Tuamotos other than dive and snorkel. On calm days when there isn’t much wind and the sun burns brightly, it’s too hot to ride a bike or go for a walk. On one such day, we got a tour of Gauguin’s Pearl Farm, home to the only school in the world where one can formally study the art of black pearl farming. At least, that’s what our guide told us. According to him, the skills are passed along elsewhere parent-to-child or master-to-apprentice.
The pearls begin as small cultured white pearls from the Mississippi River in the U.S. that are inserted into a very specific part of a particular type of oyster in French Polynesia. Before insertion, a piece of mantle from a sacrificed oyster is brushed on the seed pearl so that the seed will begin to develop the dark color unique to black pearls. This part of the process takes a few seconds.
The oysters are then strung together, each worker having rope of a designated color, dropped into nets, and dunked into a saltwater holding tank. When enough oysters are ready for the move, they’re taken into a designated area of the ocean to sit for 18-24 months. At which time a highly skilled technician removes and inspects the pearl for color, shape, and quality. If the pearl is deemed sufficiently round and dark, the oyster will be used again to culture another pearl and the pearl itself will spend another year inside an already-proven oyster. If the pearl is oddly shaped or light in color, the oyster shell winds up as buttons in Asia and the pearl is either reinserted so that it will grow and hopefully improve in a different oyster, destroyed, given away, or sold cheaply as an ungraded pearl (at Gauguin’s, all are destroyed if not up to standards but the cheap uncertified black pearls available on the market have to come from somewhere). Most often, the pearl is given another year as even an oddly shaped black pearl commands a hefty price.
A large dark pearl can take 10 years and multiple oysters – even the lowest quality of certified black pearl may take five years to reach a size and luster worth selling. The pearls are graded A-D with A the highest grade and classified by shape: round, semi-round, drop, oval, button, or baroque.
D-grade, those with flaws but good color and shape are often hand-carved in a distinctly Polynesian style.
Black pearls are sold throughout French Polynesia by roadside artisans, upscale shops, and vendors of all sorts. Jen was on a mission to find an affordable one that at least looks like good quality. It took until our final day in French Polynesia to locate one that met all of her criteria.
I never knew much about black pearls but I’ve always liked them and spending a few hours at Gauguin’s was a good way to pass a hot morning on Rangiroa. Next up – the real fun of French Polynesia: diving and snorkeling.