After many hours of travel and some needed rest, we awoke in our rooms at the Intercontinental Resort Tahiti to the magnificent views of Moorea Island across the water. We were finally in French Polynesia! The day was stunning and we enjoyed the soft air on our skin as we embarked on an island tour.
A memorable stop at a black pearl farm proved to be quite educational as we learned about the process of seeding, harvesting, and grading of precious black pearls. French Polynesia's cultured pearl industry, now second only to tourism as a money earner, originated in 1963 when an experimental farm was established on Hikueru atoll in the Tuamotu Islands east of Tahiti. Today hundreds of cooperative and private pearl farms operate on 26 atolls, employing thousands of people.
The term, ‘black’ pearl is a bit of a misnomer as the pearls themselves range through a variety of shades of dark blues, purples, grays, and greens. Unlike the Japanese cultured white pearl, the Polynesian black pearl is created only by the giant black-lipped oyster, Pinctada margaritifera, which thrives in warm, shallow lagoons. Beginning in the 19th century the oysters were collected by Polynesian divers who would sometimes dive up to 130 feet. The main goal then was the shell, which was typically used to create striking mother-of-pearl buttons. Of course, finding a highly-prized pearl back then was pure chance. By the middle of the 20th century over-harvesting had depleted the naturally slow-growing oyster beds; today wild oysters are collected only to supply cultured-pearl farms. The strings of oysters must be monitored constantly and lowered or raised if there are variations in water temperature.
Selecting your very own pearl certainly makes for a tough choice. The pearls are all graded according to overall quality which includes luster, size, shape, and surface perfection. A single pearl can cost from several thousand dollars to a mere $5 depending on your budget and the number of imperfections you are prepared to live with. Most of us came away from this unique experience with greater appreciation for this important industry and were happy indeed to help support the local economy!