History Of The Tahitian Pearl

By: Robert Thomson


A pearl is not just a pearl. There are varieties when it comes to pearls. They include: Cultured Pearls, Natural Pearls, Saltwater Pearls, Freshwater Pearls, Akoya Pearls, Tahitian Pearls, South Sea Pearls, the list goes on.

The Tahitian pearl, while not technically from Tahiti, is neither white nor black but a rainbow of color. Tahitian pearls are known for their iridescent, vibrant, almost metallic colors, unique among saltwater cultured pearls. Though commonly called "black" pearls, Tahitian pearls are actually gray, to lighter or darker degrees. But, in addition, Tahitian pearls have the unique ability to display a variety of colors at the same time, shimmering about their surfaces in varying shades -- colors such as Peacock, Eggplant -- or Aubergine, Green, Olive Green, Blue and Magenta. The most highly prized Tahitian pearls are those of the iridescent peacock and cobalt blue colors, followed by the rainbows, grays and golds. Other fancy Tahitian pearl colors may range from parchment, to lemon, to a golden-orange.

To explain the color of the pearl, in Tahiti, there is a story told of the god Oro, who long ago used his rainbows to visit Earth, giving mother-of-pearl its iridescence and Tahitian pearls their colors. While the Tahitian pearl does get its name from the French Polynesia's most well-known island, the pearl is actually cultivated throughout the waters of French Polynesia, a collection of islands and atolls in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. Tahiti itself serves as the commercial center and trading hub for the bulk of the Tahitian pearl industry.

The Pacific Islands have been known for their water's riches for hundreds of years, since the influx of Europeans who came in search of them. At the time, natural pearls were mined, mostly off the islands of Gambier and Tuamotu. It wasn't long that the pearls quickly became depleted and nearly extinct. But the demand for pearls did not wane and with that came the Japanese technology of producing cultured pearls.

A cultured pearl is different than a natural pearl in whether the pearl was created spontaneously by nature - without human intervention - or with human aid. For example; pearls are formed inside the shell of certain mollusks: as a defense mechanism to a potentially threatening irritant such as a parasite inside its shell, the mollusk creates a pearl to seal off the irritation.

The irritant is placed in the oyster once the oyster is large enough to start producing pearls. This process is started by a graft, a procedure similar to surgery. A successful grafter uses sterile and razor-sharp tools, antibiotics, an eye for detail, and a very, very steady hand. Grafting involves transplanting a small piece of mantle from one oyster to another. The graft tissue largely dictates the quality of the pearl. Donor oysters are usually chosen for the beauty of their colors, as their mantle creates the eventual color of the pearl.

The next step in the grafting process is the insertion of a nucleus, the six to eight millimeter ball around which the pearl grows. The Japanese researchers who pioneered the grafting process discovered that the shell of a wild mussel in the Mississippi river basin had the appropriate density necessary for a pearl nucleus, and to this day most nuclei come from this unlikely mollusk. In recent years other nuclei types have been used, notably the very successful M.O.P. M.O.P. nuclei are carved from the shells of pearl producing oysters Pinctada Margaritifera and Pinctada Maxima.

What makes a cultured Tahitian pearl different from its counterparts is the fact that the water is warm around the Tahitian island, a temperature favorable to an oyster called the "Black Lipped" oyster or Pinctada margaritifera. This oyster is almost twice the size of the Japanese Akoya oyster. This warm water species naturally ranges across the central and south Pacific, but its main homes are in the great atolls of French Polynesia.

This oyster, used to create pearls, has a low survival rate, which is possibly why the Tahitian Pearl holds its value. Some oysters can be nucleated up to four times, with the last nucleation potentially creating what is called a "mabe" pearl -- a half-spherical cultured pearl grown on the inside shell of an oyster rather than within its body. Because these oysters are so sensitive and valuable, technicians take great care not to damage them when removing their pearls. If, after extracting a pearl, a technician determines the oyster is healthy, he or she will immediately insert another nucleus to produce another pearl.

Prior to all of this, the oyster has to be collected from lagoons. The oyster starts its life as a free swimming plankton. After three weeks of swimming in the lagoon, it begins to grow a shell and search for a surface, which it can attach. The farmers then sets out collectors during strategic times of year (usually corresponding to changes in the season) that offer ideal places for the young and vulnerable oysters to seek refuge and mature.

Once the technician has finished the grafting operation on an oyster, it is suspended on a long line in the clear water of the lagoon for about a year and a half as the pearl inside forms and grows. At the harvest of a second pearl a third graft of even larger proportions is sometimes performed. Although extremely rare, nuclei up to 18 millimeters in diameter are sometimes used. Unfortunately every successive pearl sees the increasing age of the oyster and the subsequent decline in quality. This is why very large pearls of excellent are quality so rare.

After the Tahitian pearl is harvested it is cleaned, dried and polished. Tahitian cultured pearls display a wide range of surface qualities, from "clean" to "heavily blemished." High-quality Tahitian pearls may occur virtually free of flaws such as spots, bumps, pits, wrinkles and rings. As with all pearls with long cultivation periods, Tahitian pearls possess surface imperfections that tend to add to their interest and allure.

No, a pearl isn't just a pearl. Each is as individualized as the region and oyster they came from - much like a fine wine.

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