In September 2016 I embarked on a three-month, once-in-a-lifetime adventure across the exotic islands of French Polynesia with my partner Philippe and our son Jojo.
After settling quickly into our make-believe surroundings and slow pace of life I soon found my creative juices overflowing, inspiring stimuli leaping at me from every possible angle. A few cycles around the island and a thrilling boat trip down the line and my relaxing holiday had quickly become a sourcing trip.
I’ve long been aware of Tahitian pearls; their intense hues of smoky grey, peacock green and inky blue have always thrilled me. Naturally, French Polynesia felt a little to me like a sweet shop does to a child. Time and time again I found myself drawn to glistening shop windows filled to the brim with awe-inspiring jewellery, fighting the urge to press my nose against the glass. Luckily, I’d done my research in advance and knew that Huahine – the island where we were due to spend most of our time – boasted its very own eco-friendly pearl farm. I tore myself away from the windows and waited patiently for the right time.
Once in Huahine, our long-anticipated journey to the pearl farm was nothing less than idyllic; a short boat ride through a turquoise lagoon, our final destination a tiny white cottage in the water that snatched our breath away when it materialised.
The human population of French Polynesia is tiny, and Huahine is a stunning illustration of that. Lush green hues clash with penetrating shades of blue; rows of palm, papaya and mango trees tower over, ancient and strong. Mother Nature thrives, pollution is minimal and the ocean is clearer than any sea I’ve ever dipped my toes into before. The mollusc responsible for the black Tahitian pearl can survive only in clean waters, making this idyll the perfect location for a sustainable pearl farm.
Pearls are created inside the shells of certain molluscs, like oysters. When an irritant – usually a parasite – works its way into the shell, the mollusc produces a fluid consisting of the mineral aragonite and a compound called conchiolin. In a clever defence mechanism, the mollusc coats the irritant with this fluid (called nacre), layer after layer over a period of 5-20 years, until eventually, a gleaming pearl is formed.
Black Tahitian pearls are valued so highly because of their rarity. The conditions necessary for a black pearl to materialise are specific and uncommon.
The black pearl is formed inside the Tahitian black-lipped Pinctada Margaritifera oyster. Like other pearls, they emerge as a result of an irritant entering the oyster’s shell.
These unusual pearls are impossible to mass-produce because the black-lipped oyster can grow only one black pearl at a time. Its environment must be unpolluted and crystal clear.
Whilst the interior of most oyster shells are glossy white or silver, the Tahitian oyster’s shell is characterised by a thick black bad. Pearls only become black if they can form near this band and soak up its dark colouring. The closer the pearl grows to the oyster’s lips, the darker – and thus more valuable – it winds up being. Even in these particular circumstances, the ‘black’ pearl is very rarely black. Usually, Tahitian pearls capture imaginations in shades of green, aubergine, blue or silver.
The ultimate price of a black pearl depends on a number of factors; from its size to its shape, lustre, surface quality and hue. The most ‘perfect’ pearls – and thus the most valuable – are those that are smooth, dark and perfectly round.
Pearls are categorised by eight basic shapes: round, semi-round, button, drop, pear, oval, baroque, circled and double-bouldered. Semi-round pears are those most often used in necklaces. Drop, button and pear-shaped pearls are commonly used in earrings and pendants, where the asymmetrical shape can be easily disguised with a metal setting. For me as a designer, I love the pearls that are ‘imperfect’; they’re natural and bursting with character. A little hole here or a tiny lump there reminds me that a pearl is the miraculous creation of a living creature; a gift from Mother Nature to be treated with admiration and respect.
When I stumbled upon this French Polynesian farm harvesting pearls in a way that minimises impact on the fragile marine environment, I felt as though all my Christmases had come at once. It was an honour to visit and gain an insight into the team’s sustainable practise.
Human intervention comes only in the form of a grafter: a farmer who carefully intervenes a couple of times a year, gently inserting small nuclei into any oysters whose shells are empty. For the remainder of the year the oysters are left to their own devices, Mother Nature free to produce beautiful, unique pearls at her own pace.
I began my jewellery journey almost two decades ago, working as a fashion jewellery designer in the Far East. During this epoch I visited countless Hong Kong offices filled to the brim with tons of Chinese fresh-water pearls. These pearls are forcibly grown inside molluscs in highly polluted lakes around the country. In spite of the filthy conditions, pearls are formed at break-neck speed – and it didn’t sit right with me. Since that day, the mental image of those offices has made me shudder. No animal should be forced to produce obscene volumes of natural material in such questionable conditions.
As a result of this experience, I’ve long been hesitant to design pearl jewellery. I am totally committed to sourcing the most ethical materials available to me – and to finally discover pearls that are harvested in an honest, non-intrusive manner was a revelation.
Sadly, Huahine Nui Pearl Farm don’t export their pearls. On the bright side, I made my visit worthwhile – and stocked up on a generous handful whilst I could!
Many of these little miracles have already worked their way into spectacular bespoke creations for a regular client of mine. Still tucked safely away is a small surplus of loose, leftover pearls, raring to be incorporated into a unique creation. Feeling inspired? Get in touch today – we’d love to hear your ideas!
I found it very difficult to say nana(‘goodbye’ in Tahitian) to these beautiful islands after our incredible experiences. For now, French Polynesia inhabits its very own spot in my heart. I’ll hear the distant crashing of those waves and feel the dappled sun on my skin every time I touch a beautiful black pearl.
Love, Arabel x