The World of Pearls

The romance of the South Seas! The exotic mystery of the black pearl! It is this combination that has lured me to travel over ten thousand miles to Manihi Island, a remote speck of land in the Tuamotu island group, three hundred fifty miles northeast of Tahiti. It is only in these far-off islands that the natural conditions exist for the culture of this unique gem.

The Manihi atoll is a doughnut-shaped flat ribbon of coral surrounding a central lagoon more than twelve miles across. Several pearl farms are located in the lagoon. This sheltered body of water provides an ideal habitat for the pearl oysters as well as sufficient protection for the pearl farmers against the windswept dangers of the open Pacific.

Our expedition gets underway shortly after dawn and consists of a French interpreter, our Tahitian boatman and guide Toputu, and me. Our destination: the pearl farm Kata-Kata.

With an intuitive skill passed down from a thousand generations of seafaring ancestors, Toputu pilots our small wooden runabout through a maze of coral heads that lurk just beneath the surface, waiting to tear the bottom out of our fragile craft.

Crossing the lagoon, we pass several pearl farms. The layout of each is similar. Several small wooden huts face the lagoon. A neatly constructed wooden wharf juts out from the beach approximately two hundred yards out into the lagoon. Perched at the end of the wharf is a small wooden building that serves as the farm’s workhouse. Pairs of wooden piers spaced about twenty feet apart extend from the workhouse; connecting the piers is a horizontal gridwork of are slender cages of wire mesh that both house and protect the pearl oysters.

The trip across the lagoon takes a bit over two hours. Upon our arrival at the Kata-Kata farm we are heartily greeted by the farm’s manager, Momo Paia, and his wife Tipati. Both are native islanders sporting the natural bronze-tan complexions that Western women would kill for. Both are dressed casually, Western style, but with the relaxed friendly manner that is one hundred percent Polynesian. Responding to my curiosity about the meaning of the farm’s name, Momo laughs. From the Polynesian, he explains, “Kata-Kata” translates as”lots of laughs.”

Momo leads the way out along the wharf to the headquarter’s shack. Inside the one-room unpainted structure, blackboards chart the progress of the cultivation. In one corner is a small kitchen presided over by Tipati. Diagonally across the room is a glistening white enameled lab table where the implanting operation is performed.

Pearl making is an irritating proposition for the pearl oyster. In nature, the pearl nucleus a grain of sand or small bit of coral works its way into the soft mantle tissues of the oyster, causing irritation. To combat the discomfort, the oyster secretes nacre. More commonly called mother of pearl, nacre is a two-part calcium carbonate. The nacre covers the nucleus, enlarging it and making the oyster even more uncomfortable. The mollusk responds by secreting more nacre until, layer upon layer, the pearl takes form.

Mr. Sadao Ishi Bashi works at the Kata-Kata pearl farm. He is a slender Japanese man of medium height with a bright smile and an excellent command of English. Mr. Ishi Bashi’s job is to implant the nucleus into each pearl oyster. Sadao, as he likes to be called, has been performing this operation for over two decades. A marine biologist by training, he learned his trade at a Japanese-owned company in Australia. Sadao gave me a step-by-step explanation of pearl farming techniques as I watched him perform the delicate operation.

Between October and February, when the waters of the South Pacific are at their warmest, the black lip oyster (Pinctada margaritifera) begins its reproductive cycle. The young oysters begin as “spat,” microscopic offspring given off by the parent mollusk by the tens of millions. After several days of free floating in the lagoon, the spat not consumed by predators begin to look for something to attach themselves to. To gather the spat, the pearl farmer simply takes a bundle of miki-miki branches, a scrub bush native to the Tuamotu islands, wraps the bundle in chicken wire, attaches it to a buoy, and drops it into the lagoon in the area where the oysters are breeding. The woody branches of the miki-miki provide an ideal resting place for the spat. The bundles are then gathered and placed in a protected area of the lagoon. After two years, the spat have matured into full-grown oysters, six to eight inches in diameter.

The mature oyster is removed from the water. A worker drills a small hole in the heel of the shell. Using a special tool, another worker gently pries the shell open, sliding a small bamboo wedge between the valves to keep the shell from closing. The oyster is then ready for Mr. Ishi Bashi and the grafting operation.

I watch closely as Sadao slides the oyster into a stainless steel clamp mounted about ten inches above the work surface. The clamp holds the animal in place while the implant is performed. Sadao carefully selects a seven-millimeter mother-of-pearl sphere with a long-handled stainless steel spoon, similar to a dentist’s instrument, and slides the spoon between the partially opened valves of the oyster. He then places the sphere, along with a tiny square of mantle tissue taken from another live oyster, in the area surrounding the gonad sac, the oyster’s reproductive organ. The addition of this mantle tissue helps stimulate the formation of nacre. He then removes the wedge, allowing the valves to close.

The pearl nucleus, Sadao explains, is cut from the shell of the Pig Toe, a variety of Mississippi River mussel. The size of the implant depends upon the size of the oyster receiving the graft. The black lip can reach a diameter of twelve inches and a weight of eleven pounds. Normally a sphere with a minimum diameter of seven millimeters is used but a very large oyster may take a sphere of up to twelve millimeters.

Once the operation is completed, the oysters are returned to the lagoon. Suspended by a length of monofilament passed through the drill hole, the mature implanted oysters are attached inside a long narrow wire basket and hung between the piers until harvest time.

Kata-Kata will farm an average of sixty thousand oysters. Forty to sixty percent of the oysters will fail during the two-year cultivation period. On average, approximately six percent of the total crop will be finer quality pearls.

Back in Papeete, I ask Ronald Sage, a well-known dealer, about the black pearl’s unique color. “It is completely natural,” he says. Although it is called black, the color of the pearl varies from a cream color, called poe nono, through gray, poe motea, to a black called poe rava. Sage is referring to the body color of the pearl.

The basic or body color is only one criterion in the connoisseurship of pearls and it is of secondary importance. Poe rava or poe nono, neither is inherently more beautiful that the other; symmetry, texture, size, luster, and orient are more important. Additional details on pearl grading are provided in chapter five.


History: Natural vs Cultured

There are two basic types of pearls, natural and cultured. In either case the method of producing the pearl is essentially the same. An irritant in the form of a grain of sand, a piece of coral, or a implant introduced by man, is placed or finds its way into the soft mantle tissues of the host mollusk. The oyster in the case of saltwater pearls, or clam in freshwater pearls, secretes a substance called nacre, a calcium carbonate composed of alternating layers of flattened aragonite crystals and concholian, a sort of calcium glue, that acts as a binder.

The first successful pearl culturing was developed in China in the fourteenth century. In the early years of this century, two Japanese researchers, Tokshi Nishikawa and K. Mikimoto, working independ- ently of each other, came up with a process to artificially introduce a nucleus into the oyster. Patented in 1907, this technique made it possible to produce this extremely rare pearl in much larger quantities. In 1908, Mikimoto established the first commercial pearl farm in Japan.

Natural pearls are found in many parts of the world and are produced by a number of varieties of oyster. Historically, the best known pearl-producing areas include the Persian Gulf and the waters of the Gulf of Mannar off Ceylon (Sri Lanka). These waters are the source of the famous oriental pearls, a product of a specific variety of mollusk called Pinctada vulgaris, also known as the lingah shell.

Some of the most famous pearls were not oriental. One famous pearl, La Peregrina “The Incomparable” came from the Americas; it was found in Panama in the late sixteenth century. Originally owned by Mary Tudor, this pearl passed through a series of royal hands, or perhaps bosoms, until it finally came to rest on the most famous bosom of the last century: it was purchased by Richard Burton and given as a gift to his wife Elizabeth Taylor. Another famous pearl, the Tiffany Queen Pearl, was actually a freshwater gem found in 1857 in a stream near Patterson (Notchbrook), New Jersey. This round, highly translucent beauty was once owned by the Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III.

Although a perfectly round pearl is the most desired, historically many of the most important pearls were not. La Peregrina is pear shaped, as was another famous Venezuelan pearl, the Phillip II. During the Renaissance, baroque pearls that suggested the body of an animal or person were used extensively in jewelry.

The Cultured Standard

Cultured pearls began to appear in force in the market in the late 1920s, causing a dramatic fall in the price of natural pearls. It has taken forty years for the aftershock to subside. It was not until the 1960s that cultured pearls were completely accepted; by that time cultured pearls had almost completely supplanted natural pearls in the world market. This has not happened with any other gemstone enhanced by human intervention.

The cultured pearl is a gem market anomaly. Natural pearls are more expensive than cultured pearls; however, outside the Middle East, there is essentially no market for natural pearls. By the late 1960s a fine natural pearl necklace that had been purchased at the turn of the century was worth roughly one tenth of its original price. Today, despite the depressed market, a single 8mm fine round natural pearl could bring as much as sixty-three hundred dollars whereas a similar 8mm cultured pearl would bring at most four hundred dollars.130 Synthetic gemstones generally sell for pennies on the dollar when compared to natural stones. Why are pearls so different? Perhaps this is because a cultured pearl is not a synthetic, but is truly a natural product given a leg-up by man.

The three types of pearls that will be discussed in the following chapters black South Sea, white South Sea, and Chinese freshwater are all cultured.

The Japanese akoya pearl, produced by the Pinctada martensii oyster, has been omitted from this discussion. This is not because the akoya is an inferior pearl. In fact, if left to its own devices, Pinctada martensii produces a highly lustrous and superior pearl. However, assembly line methods currently practiced by the Japanese produce a pearl with such thin layers of nacre, and that is so highly processed (bleached and dyed), that it more closely resembles a manufactured product than it does a true pearl.

By Richard W. Wise – © Secrets of the gem trade
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