They say that you don't choose them, it is they that choose you. That they awaken in you a desire to dream, to travel. The Tahitian Pearl, a gem from the ocean, long kept its secrets to itself. Today, culturing black pearls has become a beautiful partnership between the magic of nature and human expertise. In the Gambier archipelago's lagoon, pearls are cultivated with utmost care, and limitless patience. The luster, shape and color of the Gambier's pearls bring connoisseurs flocking from across the globe.
Historically a center for trade in mother-of-pearl, collected by harvesting the naturally growing oyster shells, the Gambier archipelago continues the tradition, producing cultured pearls. Situated 1,600 km due South of the island of Tahiti, its lagoon appears as a huge oasis, lost in the middle of the South Pacific. The five high islands are scattered within a vast coral barrier, forming an exceptional marine environment. The main island has an enchanting name, Mangareva. Reveling in a cooler climate than that found on the island of Tahiti or the Tuamotu Islands further North, the black-lip pearl oyster, Pinctada margaritifera by its scientific name, found perfect conditions for its development: clean, cool water, rich in the nourishing plankton and mineral salts it requires. In this setting, ninety pearl farms, mostly small family affairs, culture this bivalve, often called « nacre »
If pearls were once a product of chance, not any more, or at least less so. In the 18th century the Chinese discovered how to culture pearls, a technique that was then perfected by the Japanese during the last century. Adopting these methods, the people of Mangareva have now launched the culture of their own oysters and pearls. However, the quality of a pearl is not just a product of the marine environment or technique. Eric Sichoix, who has been running his pearl farm since 2008, knows by experience that: « beautiful pearls are the product of hard work. You must be engaged, patient and tenacious ». This inspired business owner, has worked beside his uncle, the globally renowned pearl producer Robert Wan. Often called the Pearl Emperor, he is also the founder of Tahiti’s pearl museum, Musée de la perle. « I worked for him for 18 years, managing three of his farms, I was in charge of 170 people, generating 70% of the pearl production ».
Then in 2008, Eric decided to build his own farm in the Gambiers, on land that belonged to his Mangarevan wife: the motu Tarauru Roa, a white-sand islet on the coral barrier. « It was difficult at first, I started from nothing. However, through simple hard work, today I can say that I’m proud of my achievement. The quality of my pearls is the proof » assures the head-man.
Starting from just a few hectares of lagoon back then, Eric Sichoix now exploits 30 hectares. He employs fifteen people. All of them live with him on his motu. The secret to success, as he has well discovered, is catering to the market’s expectations. The most appreciated pearls are dark, round and small, around 9-10 mm. « Yesterday, I sold a lot of 4,800 pearls in Tahiti. And, next week I will have a new lot of 4,000 pearls. I already have two buyers interested ». Eric’s clients are loyal, they appreciate his professionalism and the quality of his product. For this reason, foreign wholesalers, local dealers, jewelers and collectors readily purchase the 150,000 pearls that Eric produces annually. « You have to love what you do to successfully make beautiful pearls. You have to take care of your oysters. » Eric explains
Producing black pearls in Gambier : a long process
In fact, the shells will be manipulated during several stages of their life cycle. Initially, the eggs are « trapped » in the lagoon. They attach themselves to long strips of plastic specially designed for this: collectors. After one year, the shells are « detached » that is removed from the collector. They are then sorted by size and drilled before being made into a CTN « Chapelet de Toron de Nacre (Wired strand of shells) ». In this way, they can continue to develop, protected from predators inside a wire cage. After several more months in the lagoon, the shells are ready to be grafted. A difficult operation that must be performed delicately and rapidly, by a trained grafter. The quality of the following pearl harvest lies in the skilled hands of the grafter. The maneuver consists of opening the shell and cutting into the pearl pouch, in order to insert two foreign objects. The first: the nucleus. A round bead of shell, the second: a graft. The latter will influence the color of the nacre that the oyster will secrete over the nucleus. Using a dark graft will ensure the production of a dark colored pearl. The graft is collected beforehand from the mantle of a donor shell, selected by the grafter, for its color. The oysters are then placed back in their wire cage and dropped back into the lagoon. After 14 months, as protective response against these foreign bodies, the oyster will have secreted layers of a nacreous substance around the nucleus, a substance scientifically called aragonite. The pearl is then ready to be collected by the grafters. If the resulting pearl is of a good color and quality, a new nucleus can be added to the pearl pouch, and another pearl will be produced in a few months’ time. This is what’s called a second grafting. A good worker can graft up to 700 shells in a day, with on average, just 50 out of every 100 grafted oysters producing a marketable pearl.
The most sought-after pearls are round, particularly if the color, iridescence, size and surface all correspond with certain specific commercial criteria. There are also circular, baroque and semi-round pearls. Nature, whilst loosely influenced is far from being completely mastered, is little more than loosely influenced. Which just adds to the mystique of real pearls.
Culturing black pearl: skilled Chinese pearl grafters
To ensure the very best harvest results, the Mangarevan professionals rely on the expertise of Chinese pearl grafters. They have the reputation of working faster and with greater precision. Feng Fen comes from the city of Cuang Dong in China. She was recruited by Polynesian pearl-farmers in search of workers. For 16 years now, Feng Fen has worked away from her home country, grafting pearl oysters in Polynesian lagoons. She has been living in the Gambiers for a year now, along with seven other grafters and friends from the same city. Far from home, they recreate together a small Chinese community. « We need to stay together, to speak our language, to have fun, to get out and about. It allows us to live our culture, even if we are a long way away » the grafter explains.
At 35 years old, Feng Fen knows that she will soon return home to her children, that she sees just once a year during five weeks of vacation. By then, she will have saved enough money to be able to live with them and offer them a more comfortable life. By working thousands of kilometers away from home, a good grafter can earn up to four times the equivalent Chinese salary. However, paying for the services of a Chinese grafter is not always within the reach of small pearl-farm owners. You need to pay their airfare, accommodation, and provide their salary, just for a few weeks of work every year. It was with this problem in mind that, in 2010, just after the global financial crisis that the Economic Interest Group (EIG) Poé Rikitea was born. « It functions like a cooperative, with the aim of improving the quality of the pearls produced and increasing their value », explains Dominique Devaux, the EIG’s director.
And so, this group brings Chinese grafters over throughout the year and the thirty, small, member pearl-farms share the grafters according to their grafting season and at a much more reasonable cost. The members also market their pearls together. Three times a year the large auctions attract most of the large international buyers based in Papeete. The pearls produced by the grouped farms are pooled, sorted, weighed and x-rayed to determine the thickness of the nacreous layer (it must be at least 0.8 mm) and are then put up for sale in lots of several thousand. The EIG’s auctions aim to promote the pearls. During the last sale 560 lots were sold. The EIG is, therefore, the structure that allows small pearl-farms to compete with the larger producers. Eugène Keck, also known as « Dada », has been a pearl-farmer since 2004, the moment that he took over his grandfather’s farm to the East of Mangareva.
« Being a member of the EIG, is only advantageous for me. I can call in good grafters that cost less than bringing them directly from China myself, and I don’t have to worry about the sales, it allows me to focus 100% on the quality of my pearls ». Dada was trained on the ground, like the majority of pearl-farmers in the Gambiers. Starting with a 4-hectare plot of lagoon, he has now tripled the size of his business, and can now « have his word to say » as he puts it. Dada sold 5,400 pearls during the EIG’s last sale. At his side are two full-time workers and several part-timers, when he needs more hands. Thirty-year-old Moana is the most recent arrival, it’s his first experience on a pearl-farm: « right at the beginning it wasn’t easy, you’re always wet, you smell bad, you get cut, you have to be dedicated to do this work ».
Engraving pearl shell
On Akamaru, a small island bordered with tropical trees and inhabited by just a handful of people, Rémi works with his little sister Tutana and his wife Louise. It’s a family-run pearl-farm, where the thorough and rigorous nature of the work isn’t detrimental to their family ties. Quite the opposite: « Working as a family help us because we have the same motivations, the same objectives. We work for ourselves » explains Rémi. They exploit 5 hectares and work tirelessly. Under the beating sun or torrential rain, they work from their small barge cleaning the wire shell mesh, before returning them into the lagoon. The rhythm is punishing, but they encourage each other, chatting away and joking sometimes. For them, pearlculturing is a means of saving money, for the future. « We never take holidays, we are just looking to save money, so that we don’t have to worry later on » Rémi adds. When the work on the pearlfarm is finished, Louise and her sister-in-law Tutana make jewelry, using the lower grade pearls. Facing the water, in their small hut, they design necklaces, earrings and bracelets. Sold to the local women and passing tourists. An activity that gives them some extra revenue. Shell engraving has developed a great deal in the Gambiers in recent years. The Mangarevans have understood that you can also continue to make a living from the mother-of-pearl and pearls, even if their price has dropped. The Catholic friars that opened the CED (Centre Educatif au Développement, Educational Center for Development in Rikitea), had already understood as much. For 30 years now, this institution has been offering courses in engraving mother-of pearl. In this way you can create decorative pieces, jewelry and pendants. « Here we have the raw materials just at hand. We retrieve the pearl shells, which is complementary to the cycle of pearl growing, in the end, nothing is wasted. » explains Heifara, who teaches engraving. Thirty students, from across Polynesia master over two years, the handling of the tools used to work this kaleidoscopic and fragile material. They produce pieces to order for the local population.
A while ago, the students made a trophy for the beach volley world championship held in Tahiti in July 2015 and contributed to the large-scale restoration of Saint Michel’s Church on Rikitea. When the shells are not sent to the CED, they are shipped by boat to Tahiti. A company in Tahiti buys them in bulk, transforming them in its workshops into shirt buttons and small pieces handicrafts. Whilst collectively called « black pearls », the oysters produce a vast array of pigments and an infinite palette of colors, which, combined with their shape, make every pearl entirely unique. No single pearl is more beautiful than another, it’s not a trick of the light, it’s just a matter of personal preference and your perception of them.