Black Pearl NecklaceThe French Polynesia Islands in the South Pacific are an extraordinary destination.  And their sea treasures are equally impressive. The last time I was in Manihi, an island in the Tuamotu Archipelago in the South Pacific northeast of Tahiti, I learned that some of the rarest pearls on earth are found here; black pearls. I also met again Paris-born Cathy Schneider, who has lived on this volcanic atoll for over 20 years. Cathy knows a lot about mollusks and gives tours on the pearl farm.  She also oversees the pearl boutique at the five-star Manihi Pearl Beach Resort that has stunning over-the-ocean cabins.

The waters in the Tuamotus are the only waters where black pearls can be  cultivated because they’ve remained free of pollutions, rich in plankton and experience little temperature fluctuations.  The black pearl industry is second only to tourism in importance in French Polynesia, so the government ensures the environment is controlled so as not to disturb the fragile balance of nature.

over the water cabins at the Manihi Pearl Beach Hotelapproaching the pearl farm by boatIt’s a 10- minute high-speed boat trip to Takovea, the pearl farm.  Our boat docks in the lagoon and we cross over a narrow plank to a small group of buildings on stilts.  The Compagnie Perliere des Tuamotu launched in 1968 and one of the largest of literally hundreds of farms.

Although there are about 70 species of oysters that will make pearls, only three types produce the rarest and they are the white South Sea pearls near Australia, the small white akoya pearl found in Japanese, Chinese and Korean waters and the black pearl in this part of the world.

The black-lipped oyster, Pinctada Margaritifera, produce pearls that range in color from gray to white and aubergine to magenta, bronze, green and deep black.  The darker, the more expensive.

The newly opened oyster with perfect pearlTahitian Black Pearl & OysterAt the farm 10 kilometers (6 miles) of ropes get sunk into the waters and at any time about 60,000 to 80,000 oysters are attached.  It will be more than three years before they can be harvested

“Maintenance takes up 60% of the time,” Schneider tells me.  “If it’s not done properly, the shell will not grow.”

Diagrams show oysters organs, the gonad being most important. Schneider holds up a “collector” which looks very much like black steel wool but softer and more pliable.  Baby oysters, or spats, which haven’t been eaten by predators, are gathered in the collector. They are then fertilized in one of the two stations in the lagoon.

Cathy with diagram of oystercathy demonstrating the collectorThe young oysters spend up to a year in the collectors before they are transferred to rearing baskets.  Over the next year, they are regularly checked and moved to bigger nets as they grow.  When they are strong and healthy, at about age two, a technician delicately pries open the mollusk, makes an incision in the gonad, and implants a spherical head.

A top grafter can do about 300 shells a day. The beads vary in size and are from mussels imported from the Mississippi and Tennessee river valleys. Irritated by the bead, the oyster secrets a substance called nacre, which builds up around the nucleus and forms a pearl.

Tahitian Cultured Black Pearlsthe black pearlAn oyster can create three to four layers of nacre a day.  In three years, the pearl gets removed by a technician.  Prices are high since only 10 out of every 2,000 will produce an “A” quality pearl.

Before 1978 few people knew about Tahitian black pearls.  Now there’s a greater awareness of black pearls among jewelry collectors.

There are several important features to look for when purchasing black pearls.  Color should include the base color of black or gray with hints that range from peacock green and eggplant to blue, pink and gold (champagne color).  Size counts. Black pearls seldom are as large as the South Sea pearls and range from 8mm to the occasional and very costly 21mm.  Lustre depends on the quality of the layers of nacre.  Light reflecting from the surface gives a pearl its shine and brilliance.  Shapes go from perfectly round, semi round, ringed, baroque and button.  The most perfect pearl has no pits, scratches or stains on the  surface.  But these are very rare so slight depressions are considered “natural perfections.”

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