Thursday, June 7, 2012

How Black Pearls are Farmed in Paradise

On the atoll of Takaroa we were able to visit a black pearl farm. The manager was happy to show us around and explain the process of farming the pearls. He said we were the first outsiders to ever visit the farm, and was pleased to be able to share his knowledge by giving us an informal tour and answer all of our questions.

Tuamotu Black Pearls
Black pearls are a major source of income for the Tuamotus. The pristine protected lagoons provide the perfect environment for oysters, and the Paumotu people have capitalized. White pearls can be farmed in many places throughout the world, but only the Tuamotus provide the necessary environment for oysters that produce black pearls, making them much more rare and valuable than the white variety.

Farming the pearls takes lots of hard work, a bit of science, and a bit of luck. Firstly, baby oysters are farmed and chosen for their shape and general health. They are grown to the proper size, and then with a surgical procedure a small bit of rounded shell is inserted into the oyster, around which it will develop the pearl. It was interesting to find out that only shells used were from a different breed of oyster from Mississippi. The shells from a Mississippi oyster are shipped to Japan to be put into their round shape, then those round pieces of shell are shipped here to the Tuamotus to be inserted into the oyster.

Just pulled out of the sea and ready for a cleaning
Once the shell is surgically inserted into the oyster it is put back in the water at a depth of 20 meters for a certain period of time. Here is where the luck comes in. If the oyster is left for a short period of time, there is less chance that it may develop flaws on the pearl, but the pearls are smaller. If it is left for a long period of time, the chances of a flaw developing are much higher, but the pearls will be larger and more valuable if flawless. Throughout time, they found that for the best return and most valuable harvest the pearl should be left to develop for 16 months.

Oyster Washing Machine
Once the pearls have been left to develop for long enough the oysters are pulled up by divers. Teams of divers are constantly setting and resetting oyster nets, day after day. The oysters are brought up and firstly cleaned. Barnacles, parasites, and and weeds that may have grown on the shells are removed, and the live oyster is sent through a machine that scrubs and washes it. At first, I was curious as to why all of this trouble was taken. Why not just crack the things open and pull out the pearl? But it's important that the oysters stay alive during this process, as they are re-used if found to be good at producing pearls. After their wash they are put back in the sea for 20 minutes so that they can breathe.

Oyster surgery is delicate work.
Freshly scrubbed, and rejuvenated from their dip in the sea, the oysters are sent to technicians, called surgeons by the manager. The surgeons open them and harvest their pearls. It takes great skill to properly open an oyster, remove the pearl, and insert another piece of shell without killing the animal completely. Every time the technician pulls out a flawless pearl, that oyster is put in a special pile because it produces good pearls. These oysters are implanted with another bit of shell, put into their net, and go back into the lagoon. The oysters that don't make decent pearls are put into another pile and are eventually chopped up for food and fishing bait. It was interesting to watch the Chinese women skillfully work with their surgeon's tools. Chinese people are known for having the skill, and are here in the Tuamotus on work contracts earning a high wage.

The farm that we visited is a fairly large one. It employed around 20 people, and was able to produce up to 1500 pearls on a harvesting day. Every pearl is shipped to a jeweler in Tahiti who grades them by color, size, and flawlessness, much like a diamond. That jeweler then ships the pearls worldwide, with the biggest markets being in China, Japan, and Germany. A large, flawless pearl is able to sell for $20,000 USD or more.

It was interesting to be able to simply walk up to a workplace and just start asking questions. Tine and I were given a complete tour, allowed to take photos, and were shown an immense amount of hospitality during their busy work day. The kindness of the Pacific Islanders never ceases to amaze me, and I really enjoyed the experience of seeing this aspect of their lives.

1 comment:

  1. Found your site on Stumble. Nice write up on the black pearl farming. Wish I was out sailing again. Soon come though. Enjoy.