In September 2016 I embarked on a 3 month once-in-a-lifetime trip to the exotic islands of French Polynesia with my partner Philippe and our son Jojo.
After settling quickly into our new surroundings my inspiration for design was overflowing after our daily trips around the island by bicycle and boat and my relaxing holiday soon turned into a sourcing trip…
I was aware that Tahitian pearls existed and I always love their intense dark hues of dark grey, dark peacock blue and dark green, so when arriving to these islands I kept on being attracted by the shop windows full of beautiful pearl jewellery.
I knew that one of the islands where we were going to spend most of our time, Huahine, has their own pearl farm, so I was expectantly waiting for us to arrive to this destination. Once in Huahine, the journey to the pearl farm was idyllic, just a short boat ride through the blue lagoon to a cottage in the middle of the lagoon that quite literally took our breath away.
There are very little people living on these islands, and Huahine is no exception, nature is overwhelming. There are rows and rows of palm trees, papaya trees, mango trees, and all kinds of tropical vegetation. Because of the few inhabitants, pollution is kept to the minimum and the waters around the island are incredible clear. The mollusc that makes the pearl can only survive in very clean waters, making this the perfect place for a sustainable pearl farm.
What is a Pearl?
Pearls are formed inside the shell of certain molluscs, like Oysters. When a parasite enters the shell, the mollusc produces a pearl sac to seal off this irritation.
If you want to seem like an expert at your next dinner party, try to remember this bit: “The mollusc’s protective membrane deposits layers of the mineral ARAGONITE held together by a compound called CONCHIOLIN. This chemical combination is called NACRE which makes up mother-of-pearl, that covers all the inside part of an Oyster.
Why are Tahitian Pearls different?
Tahitian black cultured pearls are highly valued because of their rarity. They can never be mass produced because only one pearl can be grown at a time inside the oyster, and the water needs to be crystal clean. It takes extremely rare conditions for the pearl to become ‘black’.
The same as with other pearls, black pearls are formed when a parasite gets stuck in the body of the Tahitian black-lipped Pinctada Margaritifera oyster. That can happen naturally (just a bit of sand coming inside the shell, or manually (when an experienced person, called the Grafter, opens carefully the Oyster and inserts a nucleus for the NACAR to cover it)
Most oysters have a glossy white or silver interior shell but the Tahitian oyster has a thick black band. Only if the pearl forms near that band will it soak up the dark colouring.
Black pearls are very rarely black. If they develop closer to the lips the pearl will be darker. They are usually shades of green, purple, aubergine, blue, grey or silver.
The price of a black pearl depends on its size, shape, luster, color and surface quality, if it is totally smooth and has little bumps or holes. The more perfect a pearl is the more expensive it will be.
Pearls come in eight basic shapes: round, semi-round, button, drop, pear, oval, baroque, circled and double bouldered. Semi-rounds are often used in necklaces. Drop, button and pear shaped pearls are often used in earrings and pendants where the shape can be disguised to look like it is perfectly round or appear larger by covering the back of the pearl.
For me as a designer I tend to like the ones that have some kind of imperfections, so they look natural. A little hole here or there makes me remember that a pearl is the beautiful creation of a mollusc, and it reminds me to treat mother nature with respect an admiration.
Sustainable Pearl Farming – Huahine Nui Pearls
I was honoured to discover the French Polynesian pearl farmer growing pearls in a way that minimises the impact on the fragile marine environment. A few times a year the pearl farmer, or GRAFTER carefully intervenes, inserting a nucleus into the Oyster. But the rest of the time the oysters are left alone, so nature can follow its course and produce a beautiful and unique pearl.
Because of my background in Fashion Jewellery, I have seen offices in Hong Kong filled with tons and tons of Chinese fresh-water pearls. These pearls are grown inside molluscs in lakes around the country. These molluscs can sustain very polluted conditions and still produce beautiful pearls very fast. I have always felt uncomfortable at the sight of these obscene amount of natural material, knowing that the conditions of the animals that produce them are very questionable.
Because of this, I haven’t designed much pearl jewellery before, but after getting to know the way Tahitian pearls are produced, I will definitely incorporate them in my array of beautiful ethical materials I work with.
Unfortunately, Huahine Nui pearl farm doesn’t export pearls, but while on my visit I made sure I bought enough pearls to satisfied my regular clients and a few extra ones. Now, I’m on the search for a possible exporter of these beautiful and unique pearls that will make for exceptional designs, also for men’s jewellery!
I found it very difficult to say “nana” (good bye in Tahitian) to these tropical islands after our amazing stay. Just until next time...
In the meantime, I will keep on thinking about your paradisiac beaches every time I touch a beautiful black pearl.