Legendary pearls from French Polynesia come in many colors including deep greens, mysterious purples, grays, and silver. Pearls are the only renewable gemstone and each one is unique. Black pearls from Tahiti come from a fascinating farming process we will explore in this post inspired by our visit to a far-off tropical land.
The setting for farming black pearls could not be more idyllic. Most black pearls from French Polynesia come from the Tuamotu Archipelago, including Ahe Atoll where we source our pearls from Josh and Celeste at Kamoka Pearls. These black Tahitian pearls come from a paradise of electric green lagoons, swaying coconut palms, and stunning tropical fish painted up in artist colors. The water is startlingly pristine. It looks like glass. You can see everything under the surface at any depth. This ecologic purity is part of the process because ocean oysters require pristine seawater to survive. This is why marine pearls come from such remote locations.
Ahe Atoll is a circular coral reef that once ringed an ancient volcano. It covers about 75 square miles of water, a ring of land amounting to 12 square miles to live on with a protected lagoon at its center. There is a population of just over a hundred people living there. Ahe has a single small village, Tenukupara, that has a shop and infirmary. The shop carries food staples but no over-the-counter medications. Most items like rice, beans, and eggs are cheap. But some specialty items, like beer, are expensive. A case of 16 oz. bottles of local Hinano lager beer costs $80.
Ahe has a simple airport with three Air Tahiti flights per week. These ATR turboprops have 48 seats and a maximum speed of 323 mph. The flight from Tahiti is 95 minutes including one regional stop.
The people on Ahe speak native Tahitian and French, but rarely English. They're closely bonded to the sea and local natural resources, fish, coconut palm, and local agriculture including taro, breadfruit, and sweet potatoes. The lagoon is filled with a variety of sea life, many reef sharks, octopus, sea turtles, surgeonfish, damselfish, parrotfish, and triggerfish.
Josh and Celeste have a flat-bottom boat with a 45-horsepower outboard engine that we use to explore the lagoon and fish for yellowfin tuna in the ocean outside of the atoll. The boat is the main workhorse for the farm. While we were there we caught 10 yellowfin tuna from three different schools of fish. The largest was 60 lb. The tuna were cleaned the same night that they were caught, refrigerated, and featured at meals the following day.
The Farm is built on a head of coral 300 ft inside of the lagoon and connected to the atoll ring by a long, narrow footbridge. Some of the crew sleep on the farm. The rest of the crew are assigned bungalows on the land ring, simple and colorfully painted structures elevated about 6 ft off the ground with beds and mosquito nets. The farm and each bungalow have cisterns that gather rainwater from the corrugated metal roof of the nearby structure and serve as the drinking and bathing water supply. Josh and Celeste live with inspiring self-sufficiency at the edge of the civilized world. They have total devotion to sustainable pearl farming practices. No garbage is left. Every resource is used and re-used. They are ingenious at making things work with what they have at hand.
The Magnificent Oyster
Ocean pearls come from the largest oysters in the world, white-lipped and black lipped sea oysters. Black lipped oysters are native to French Polynesia and thrive in the nutrient-rich waters, filter feeding on microscopic plankton and algae. Oyster farms put out baby oyster collectors onto which native oysters attach and grow, a natural harvesting process dependent on indigenous oyster spawns in the lagoon. After a year the shells are flat and as big around as a golf ball. After 2 years they are as big around as an an orange. In 3 years the shells are as big around as a grapefruit and are harvested from the collectors to produce pearls.
Collected oysters have a small hole drilled near the bivalve hinge that is used to attach them to underwater stations in the tide-neutral protection of the lagoon. Oysters can stay alive out of the water for a full day, but it's better to return them to the sea within hours.
Coaxing the growth of a beautiful black Tahitian pearl requires the delicate art of grafting. Skilled technicians carefully open the shell of the mature oyster about an inch wide and insert a tiny square piece of shell along with a small piece of mantle tissue. Over generations, pearl grafters have carefully developed this process that stimulates the oyster to form a pearl sac, a new organ that grows a pearl.
Patience and Nurture
After the grafting process, oysters are placed along suspended lines in the safety of the lagoon. They are regularly monitored to ensure growth and health.
It takes 3 years to grow pearls from Tahiti. It's important to keep the shells clean to avoid shell-boring parasites that can harm the oysters. Most pearl farmers hoist strings of oysters out of the water and scrub the shells by hand. On Ahe, they have learned that scrubbing and breaking up oyster shell parasites causes pests to multiply in the water. Fortunately, the scale of production at Kamoka is small enough that they can rely on the local fish to clean the oyster shells for them. This practice keeps the parasite population in check, protects the oysters, plus nourishes the local lagoon fish population, a triple win.
Behold the Pearl
After 3 years of waiting and care it comes time to harvest black pearls. The oysters are pulled from the lagoon. Each shell is opened using a special tool and a wooden wedge. Through an opening of about an inch wide, technicians use tools that resemble dental instruments and retrieve the pearl from the oyster. Pearl harvests are sorted and graded based on size, shape, color, and luster. Each black Tahitian pearl is distinctive making it a one-of-a-kind treasure. A black lipped oyster can be grafted twice more for a total of three times during its lifespan. Each time the oyster is a little larger and generally the black pearl produced is bigger and finer.
The wild beauty of this part of the world is almost irrational. It's hard for the mind to take in the brightness, color, and purity of the sea and land. The clarity of the environment is beautifully represented by the mysterious black pearl, a sustainable harvest from the tropical oceans.