After the quintessential R &R Tahitian experience of blue skies, white sands, palm trees sloping into the aqua water and the thatched roof, peue lined rooms of Hotel Sofitel Ia Ora, I begrudgingly took the 30 minute ferry from the small island of Moorea to the comparatively big city Papeete, in search of beauteous and hard to produce black pearls and gold jewelry. For any large city, traffic wouldn’t be an issue but in Papeete, the early morning rush of cars seemed to be the main topic of conversation.  However,  Pomare Avenue, the wide boulevard with the ocean on one side and cafes and stores on the other, was the reason for my being away from the peaceful and zombie-like existence just minutes away.

After an espresso at one of the many outdoor cafes looking over the huge marina where yachts, tall boats and cruise ships vie for position, I was ready to attach one of my favourite activities, shopping.

This may seem like a very easy task but when   the country’s second industry after tourism is black pearl farming,  there are more stores selling these wonderful mollusks or to be precise, the black lipped oyster, pinctada margaritifera, than even the  major fashion oriented cites..  From past experience, the first stop should be the Black Pearl Museum on Boulevard Pomare and Rue du Temple.  Here you’ll get a good idea of  the variations for size, shine, shade and shape.- the four Ss, much like the four Cs for diamond identification

However, I decided to start my research at the other end of  Pomare to confirm my former impressions of the French jewelry designer Alain Bouget.  His  beautifully  appointed boutique, My Pearls, is located on the corner of Boulevard Pomare and Avenue du Prince Hinoi. I had met Alain before and wanted to see how his creations had evolved in the three years since I had last been in Tahiti..  His designs include using a lot of gold with various colors and shapes of pearls, a palette that nature has given these wondrous by-products.  Although sophisticated styling, I felt now as I felt then, that the price points of My Pearls were high.  Coming down from his upstairs workshop, the gallant fortyish jewelry let me know that this is a most unusual appearance since he very seldomly meets with his public. I’m not sure that I was impressed or disappointed that he wouldn’t want to meet and see what the clients wanted. Although I admire his interwoven gold choker studded with three superb pearls which had a matching equally stunning bracelet, the price tag startled me. I  soon  felt comfortable in my assessment by comparison shopping since this street is just a string of pearl shops.  But, one has to really have to either know the black pearl or to feel completely confident with the shop and its staff, since so many factors play a part in the pricing. One must consider the lustre, the amount of blemishes, the thickness of the nacre the irregularities just for starters.  Certainly buying pearls in the A or B plus categories will fetch a higher  dollar value than pearls in the C range, although I did see some that were perfectly stunning and acceptable and these can drastically reduce the price.  Although small, I was impressed with Vahine Pearls Bijouterie on rue Jean-Gilbert, across from the cruise liners main dock.  Don’t be frightened off by thinking it’s a tourist trap.  But as always, let the buyer beware.. Or have some knowledgeable about the product.  Many retailers are including a certified x-ray photograph which shows the exact layers of mother of pearl, however, make sure it is the same pearl so that the thickness is what you’re actually buying and paying for.

I liked the youthful designs at The Magic Pearl (again on Boulevard Pomare) which is less pricey with good quality stock.  The Magic Pearl is part of a larger group of shops and  as a  of seal of approval, I’m told that at least 50% of their clients are locals.  This shop on Pomare has less expensive items than their larger premises, but more later.  Herman Perles, at 373 Boulevard Pomare again a smallish boutique, has an artisan, goldsmith on the premises and only use gem quality pearls.  Their contemporary designs include pearls in crystal, which is really a great look.  Just next door, is Etienne, which is more affordable with a larger stock of gold items. Although at this moment, there are only a few people browsing the shop, I did like Tahiti Or et Perles. But when push came to shove, one of the best shopping spots is what is known as the Black Pearl Plaza but really called Centre Vaima.  It was difficult to decide which of the dozens of stores to enter so I made my decision by window-shopping.  My first in- store stop was Tahitian Native Jewelry.  Don’t get the image of some primitive native designs.  In fact, the refined items were a pleasure to view in this outdoor shopping mall.  Vaima Perles Boutique, with the same owners as the above mentioned The Magic Pearl, has unexpected great designs at good prices.  For instance, a clear acrylic ring is set with a very good-looking black pearl and is priced under US$300.  Braided silk neckpiece and bracelet that comes in various colors has hanging not bad quality pearls.  But here we’re  talking about a ‘look’, not priceless gems. There were also some splendid stainless steel strands dotted with pearls from rose to ecru to Grey and again the price points were hovering about US$200, inexpensive for this fashion forward look. Sophie, Garaccione, a young stylish woman whose parents came to Tahiti from Italy, oversees the two stores in the plaza, located just across from each other.  Here the customer can browse both ends of the spectrum, since the sister store is very up market.  At  the larger Viama  Boutique, the price tags , as expected, are higher and the quality very special.  Here you’ll find large baroque strands (one had l00 various shades of pearls and cost US$8000) or the perfectly round a quality in from champagne to peacock and well into the five to six figure market. Their creations are prefect for all ages.  “We’ve been here since l977”, Sophie tells me as I peer into the  glassed in atelier where the craftsmen are busy, never looking up from their assignments.  Again the issue of local clientele comes up and I’m told that 65% of their business is from the residence of the island.  The quality is marvelous and Sophie credits this to better supervision and more production on the pearl farms.

One important point is that when purchasing, always ask for a certificate of authenticity.  You’ll never regret owning a black pearl.  As the book says, “created by nature, cherished by men”…make that unisex.