Tahitian Black Pearls

Living Gem of the South Seas

Story by Viki Psihoyos with photos by Louie Psihoyos.

It would take an auspicious collaboration between mother nature and man’s ingenuity to create the gem known as the Tahitian Black Pearl. Rarely black but highly prized, the nuggets of nacre are being spotted on necks, fingers and lobes of many. Designers are now doing creative things with multihued globes. Even the large houses like Tiffany and (talk to me) Harry Winston are finding other best friends for girls, pearls!

Let’s know right off the bat that “blacks” are anything but. The palette echoes that of fine coutour; pistachio, pigeon grey, moon grey, orient grey, lavender, champagne, aubergine, and of course, peacock. What is truly black is the lip of the prized oyster that hosts the event, the eminent Pinctada margaritifera.

Pearls form within the hinged shells of mollusks all the time. When an irritant makes its way into mussels, clams, oysters, abalone and conch, the creatures do what they can to reduce discomfort. Layers of nacre (mother of pearl) get deployed to coat the bit of sand or coral or whatever made its way in during the constant inflow/outflow. It’s the same substance that creates the outer oyster shell, however within the dark, undisturbed chamber, the resulting product is smooth. But rarely round so just eat your oysters and leave the treasure hunting to the experts.

The undisputed expert of cultured pearls was Kokichi Mikimoto, son of a noodle maker in Japan. He was granted a patent in 1916 for the process of inserting a bead into an oyster, causing it to create out a lovely round pearl. Kind of like a saline version of the goose with the golden egg. By the way, he tinkered with different material for the operation, glass, lead, clay, wood but guess what worked best? Round nuclei cut from mussel shells found in the Mississippi River. Go figure!

Jump forward sixty years, and fly six thousand miles to the South East. French Polynesia. Warm lagoons. No pollution. Happy home to the giant black-lipped Pinctada oyster, and a flourishing pearl farming industry.
 Farms large and small are now using the same culturing technique, (and beads), to produce luminous the globes. Family-run operations require little more than a stilted shack over the womb-like waters, where they can nucleate, clean and harvest the oysters year-round. The export value brings the islands over one hundred million dollars annually, almost half of that goes to Robert Wan, the “Pearl King.” With his well-run operations spread over many of his private islands, he has done much to up the numbers of this industry.

The recipe for culturing a pearl is quite simple, take one live oyster, place a bead inside, add a bit of flesh from a donor oyster, a drop of antiseptic, close and return to water promptly. Then wait. With your fingers crossed.
 Over fifty percent of the implants are not a success, the oyster rejects the nucleus. Then, of the pearls that do form, about a quarter of those are not considered high grade, leaving only a small percent that can be graded as excellent. And don’t even try to predict the color. You simply can’t.

According to Jana Miyahira-Smith, Graduate Gemologist at Gemological Institute of America and subject specialist in pearls, man can create the conditions but can’t call the shots.

“Technology has come a long way but it’s still up to Mother Nature and that oyster to decide what you get. The color of a finished pearl is never completely predictable.”

Pearls are probably the oldest gem, and the simplest. No need to cut or polish, like their icy mineral cousins….just harvest and mount. In fact, until the great diamond discoveries of the 19th century, natural pearls were the most valuable of gems. Prized by royals, smooth, perfectly matched natural pearls encrusted crowns and other noble ornaments. At the height of the Roman Empire, the general Vitellius financed an entire military campaign by selling his mother’s pearl earrings. And in 1917, the jeweler Cartier traded a double-strand of 128 natural saltwater pearls with a Fifth Avenue matron for her townhouse, on 52nd Street. That site would cost tens of millions of dollars today.

Whereas the naturals are solid nacre, today’s cultured pearls consist of layers of nacre coating the nucleus. This luminous substance forms at a rate of about a millimeter a year, so naturally, patience is a virtue. Some exporters settle for a thin film of nacre, little more than a coat of nail polish. What distinguishes the Tahitian blacks is that the government created an export promotion authority, Perles de Tahitie Gie, imposing strict controls on quality. Every pearl that leaves their islands for export must have a nacre thickness of at least 0.8 mm. You might not care, and you can find bubble-gum baubles at Target, but don’t cry when your gems chip or peel. No, for something durable, something that lasts a few lifetimes, why not spring for the real thing. Prices generally start in the dozens of dollars for a nice pearl, once you add artistry and a few chips of sparkle, the numbers rise. But so does the appeal.

Pearls don’t just come in grandma strands anymore. Designers like Prince Dimitri are working to created unique pieces that highlight the novel luster and tones. His recent necklace of emeralds, tourmaline and green-hued pearls has garnered an award from the Tahitian government.

“I’ve known about Black Pearls all my life,” says Dimitri. “I just love them.”

While color is a major factor when valuing a pearl, other qualities also dictate how special it might be. Naturally, size plays a part in the equation. Most generally range from 8 to 14 mm. Some might reach 16 or 18, and Robert Wan has extracted egg-sized beauties from his farms, 21mm is the record-sized round pearl. There exists a baroque pearl close to 27 mm.
 Shape is also plays a part. Perfectly round pearls are the most valuable. Slightly less so, yet certainly useful are semi-round. The right setting can actually enhance the unique qualities. There are baroque pearls, which is a nice name for odd-shaped. These can range from tear-drop shaped that beg to hang above a cleavage, to knobby oddities reminiscent of ginger root. Then there’s circled, which is naturally banded. These are perfectly suited for the surfer necklaces on leather straps, which is lower in price than their moon-like counterparts.

Pearl experts also look at the gem’s luster, which is the reflection of light on the pearl’s surface. A mirror-like effect is better than dull. Then of course, scratches and dents lower the value, but also the price, making pearls a gem many can enjoy.

Pearls are the only gem that comes from a living being. There is skill involved in coaxing a special orb from the watery workshop. Which of the foot-long oysters get nucleated? How large a bead can the creature tolerate? When to peek, and extract the bounty? The key person to make the call, the nucleator, used to be imported from Japan, treated like a rock star but Tahitians have gradually learned and taken over the craft. Different farms have developed their own systems to increase the likelihood of success, but always the oyster is coddled like a sleeping baby. After nucleation, oysters are lowered into the water in specially designed netted sacks, each farm seems to have their own unique design. Routine inspection on the dangling operation monitors and removes any seaweed or barnacles that might rob nutrient-rich plankton from the oysters. The great moment on farms large and small is when a gem of beauty gets extracted from the oyster. One always hopes but can never predict what lies within. Expense and effort are rewarded when a Tahitian pearl of great color, luster, size (or all three) emerges.

Wending it’s way through the process of auction at the capital, Papeete on the island of Tahiti (just one island gets the name) the pearl will catch the eye of a jeweler. Matched with another pearl, earrings can be created. More difficult, a strand of matching dozens can end up costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Adding rocks will add zeroes to the equation. But there are pearls for every consumer, all born from a living being. The black pearl of legend is for all to enjoy.