The art of creating a black pearl

By-Dave Moran

Her fingers and eyes were as one. She could be a surgeon performing a heart valve replacement. Steady hands and eyes and a specialist’s knowledge of how to carry out such a delicate operation! She knew exactly what she was doing.

She was far from her home land of China. In fact it must seem as if she is on a distant planet such is the contrast from her home to this speck of rock stretching its head just above the vastness of the South Pacific Ocean.

She and her fellow Chinese were on the lagoon island of Mangareva; the largest group of islands of the 14 pin points on the world’s map that constitutes the Gambier Archipelago which is on the outer limits of the sprawling islands that constitutes the fabric of French Polynesia, 1600km from Tahiti.

She was completely focused on the surgical procedure of implanting a foreign object into an oyster.

I had just arrived on the Island aboard the Bounty Bay after visiting Pitcairn Island (see A/M # 99 issue) and was due to fly back to Tahiti in a couple of days. I spent this time exploring the island and it became very obvious that the farming of black pearls was the main revenue producer for the island’s community.

I met Pakatiti Mateo who generously invited a group of us to visit his farm. He was not in the practise of ‘tourists’ visiting his farm which is quite an accepted practise in the more tourist populated islands such as Bora Bora and Manihi.

As we motored out into the lagoon you could see quite a number of lines of floating buoys which fanned out from little corrugated iron roofed shacks perched above the water on an amazing assortment of slender timber poles. Their surrounding decks and even the odd small shed were held afloat by large plastic drums and nylon rope lashings. It all appeared very laid back and even had an atmosphere of, ‘she’ll be right mate’ about its construction!

But once ‘aboard’ and inside the working shed you soon became aware that this was far from a ‘she’ll be right’ operation.

The boys were busily sewing, with nylon line, ‘seeded’ oysters onto small mats that would be hung from lines into the crystal clear unpolluted waters of the lagoon.

Mature shells were being opened and checked for pearls.

A perpetually smiling lady was busy in the ‘galley’ making a brew along with cakes and sandwiches to keep the crew’s strength up.

Then, through a small opening, we entered a sparkling clean surgery with two busy surgeons (grafters) who hardly acknowledged our presence. With long tweezers they picked up a tiny bead known as the nucleus and carefully placed it into the oyster which was held in a clamp. The operation was over in less than a minute. They can nucleat (the name for the procedure) around 300 oysters a day.

They are on a tight schedule as they only spend a few days on the farm before moving to another, their skill is in high demand!

This technique to produce cultured pearls was first developed in Japan by Kokichi Mikimoto in 1893 and was in response to the falling numbers of ‘natural’ pearls which are a rarity today. Cultured pearls are now regarded as the norm. The only way to detect if a pearl is natural or cultured is by x-ray.

In the late 1960s the black pearl was hardly recognized by the pearl markets of the world and was not a common jewellery accessory until Tahitian based pearl farm owners Robert Wan and Jean Claude Brouillet took on the world pearl markets to have the Tahitian black pearl recognized for their value as opposed to the well established white pearl.

They won the battle and markets opened up around the world and in 1976 the Gemnological Institute of America, gave formal recognition to the authentic character of the cultured pearls of Tahiti.

There are no farms in the waters surrounding the island of Tahiti. Most of the functioning 1,000 farms are spread through the unpolluted lagoon waters of the Tuamotu and Gambier archipelagos.

Pearl farming is a risky business.

The farms need to be established in pollution free, crystal clear waters that are sheltered from prevailing seas and possible future cyclones which, when they do strike, can rip out millions of dollars of farm.

The farmer must first grow his own oysters. This is normally done by collecting oyster sperm and eggs to create the oyster larvae.

After being in an controlled environment the larvae attach themselves to ‘collectors’ and develop into baby oysters. Then they are placed into the nursery section of the farm where over a period of one to two years they slowly grow to a size ready for nucleating.

Then they are again hung in the farm for another two to six years before harvesting. During this time many may be lost due to pollution, storms, excessive heat or cold, disease and various other problems that nature will, from time to time, throw at the pearl farmer and his oysters.

One of the reasons the ‘perfect’ pearls are expensive is because on average out of a 100 oysters nucleated, 30 die and 30 will reject the nucleus. Of the remaining 40 oysters, if they survive nature’s unpredictable playground only five will have developed perfect pearls. And these will be graded according to their size, lustre, sheen, colour and lack of defects. No wonder for quality pearls the prices range from US$50.00 to US$2500.00 plus!

As you wander down the bustling Boulevard Pomare along the harbour’s edge be sure you take time out to visit the Tahiti Pearl Market. Here you can indulge in your childhood dreams of running your fingers through a king’s ransom of black pearls. Tahiti Pearl Market has over 150,000 pearls to tantalize and fulfil your wildest dreams!

View a 12 minute video about the pearl industry while enjoying a refreshing drink, then take the plunge and spoil yourself or your loved ones and pick your own personal pearl. An experience not to be missed!

Buyer beware!

As you wander the streets and lanes of Papeete you will come across numerous street stalls selling anything from sun glasses, shells and of course pearls. It can be fun haggling with these sharp and skilful street entrepreneurs – of course you are enticed by the chance of picking up a bargain!

If you are seriously considering purchasing a pearl, shop at a reputable store. There you can ask to see an x-ray of the pearl which will show you the thickness of the nacre. But remember the thickness of the nacre is only one characteristic that needs to be considered when ing a pearl. Thickness alone does not stamp quality on a pearl. Selecting a pearl for yourself or a loved one is a very personal choice. The pearl you choose is in part reflecting your personality and your love for that someone special – take your time when viewing a ion of pearls. Enjoy the experience as you will always remember the time and place you ed that special black pearl.

What to look for in a pearl

Orient and lustre:

This refers to the behaviour of light interacting with the pearl’s surface (nacre). The individual beauty and characteristic is caused when light travels through the thin, overlapping layers (orient) of the mother of pearl within the pearl.


As the nacre is being laid there are many pearls that show imperfections such as spots or marks within the pearl’s surface which devalues the pearl. A flawless pearl is a fairly rare visual masterpiece of nature’s finest work – and is valued accordingly.


Pearls come in all shapes and sizes and their shape has an important bearing on their desirability and therefore their sale price.Categories include; round, semi-round, drop and button to mention a few. Perfectly round pearls are the rarest, accounting for only five percent of the pearls produced. They command top prices.


Pearls produced in the crystal clear waters of the South Pacific are from the oyster, Pinctada margaritifera which are recognized for their size. They usually range in size from 8mm to 18mm. People like large pearls and this factor puts a high value on the larger ones.


For many a buyer this is the most important characteristic. Even though called ‘black pearls’ they exhibit a vast array of multi tone colours – silver, white, green, blue and even pink to list a few!

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