Trouble in Tahiti

Your blogger has been to Hawaii, where (predictably, after such a long plane ride) she contracted a massive sinus infection that knocked her down for the count. But not before a rogue wave knocked her over and made off with her vintage Persol sunglasses.

Your blogger is not complaining. She—I—spent eight days in a part of the world so beautiful it induces deep happiness. I got to spend time with my cousin on Oahu, and her husband, and her amazing mother, whom I’ve loved since childhood and who is my idea of how to be 96. Then we hopped over to Maui, where my husband’s son hired a boat to watch the humpback whales. They were breaching and blowing and having a fine old time. The volcano Haleakalā, which makes up most of Maui, was an enormous looming presence. It’s still considered active. I do not doubt that it’s alive.

Haleakalā. It’s everywhere. You imagine you could stroll up its slope, but it’s 10,000 feet high and contains every kind of microclimate, from cloud forest to pine forest to tropical garden to volcanic desert.

I felt blessedly removed from the first sulfurous eruptions of the Trump administration. More to the point of this blog, I had the happy distraction of looking at Tahitian pearls, which I first encountered on Maui a dozen years ago. Tahitians are called black pearls, though they’re anything but. The pearl we bought on our first visit—just one chaste pearl, on a white gold chain—was iridescent green. I’ve since made a gift of it, but two of the pearls below are the same peacock color.

Tahitian pearl bracelet in white gold with tiny diamonds

On this trip, I noticed such pearls on many local women, all of whom told me they’d bought them in Tahiti. ‘There’s only one flight a week, so you have to stay and shop,’ said the owner of the necklace below right.

Tahitians bought in Tahiti, but not farmed there

This was confirmed by the Hawaiian Air flight attendant on the trip home, who wore dark green pearls in her ears, at her wrists, and around her neck. ‘I used to have long layovers in Tahiti,’ she said, ‘and there’s no better way to pass the time.’

Tahitian pearls are farmed in French Polynesia; Tahiti is just the trading post. This commercial cultivation is a new thing. The first Tahitian pearl farm was developed in the late 1960s, and mass cultivation began in the 1980s. So these pearls, once the world’s most valuable, have become much more affordable. Though still not what you’d call cheap.

Tahitians are grown in the black-lipped pearl oyster, a/k/a Pinctada Margaritifera. It’s not legal to snatch up fully grown oysters from the sea bed, so cultivators gather them as tiny plankton and nurture them to adulthood. After two and a half years, they’re ready to produce pearls.

Pinctada margaritifera. Tahitian pearls come in all these colors.

But first, they receive grafts of small pieces of mantle from donor oysters. The mantle secretes the nacre that determines the color of the pearl, and the grafts ensure consistent quality. Then, a nucleus—a 6 to 8 millimeter ball made of shell or mother of pearl—is inserted into the oyster.

For the year and a half it takes to grow a pearl, these bivalves are babied: sheltered in clear lagoons, tucked into baskets to protect them from predators. At least one company uses fish to nibble away the parasites that grow on their shells. Harvesting the pearl does not kill the oyster; in fact, a second, larger nucleus is implanted to produce a second, larger pearl. Sometimes the same oyster will produce a third, still larger pearl—up to 18 millimeters. (Read more about all this here.)

What color is a Tahitian? All of the above.

And the colors—oh, man, those colors! The strand above shows some, but not all, of the range: greens and peacocks, lavenders, grays, champagne golds, dark aubergines. The play of light through all those layers of nacre—the quality called orient—gives Tahitians their thrilling iridescence. They have different personalities in different kinds of light. The pearl below, which I’ve shown you before, is gray with a flash of purple. (If you see a black or purple pearl that isn’t Tahitian—a freshwater pearl, or an Akoya—it has been dyed or irradiated, and it won’t have this stunning play of light.)

Tahitian pearl pendant by Nan Irwin

My jeweler friend Nan Irwin supplied all the Tahitians I own, and I’ve learned a lot from her about how hard it is to compose a perfect strand. Every pearl has to be equally good. And they have to knock you over. After I acquired the multicolor strand above, Nan came up with the slightly smaller blue gray ones below, steely as glowing ball bearings. They were completely different, and not to be resisted.

Steel blue-gray Tahitians from Nan Irwin

Several years passed. I had enough Tahitians and more than enough. But in the spring of last year, Nan showed me two exceptional strands of large Tahitians, ranging from 13mm to 16mm. She encountered them while scouting white South Sea pearls for another client, and said she’d never seen their like. One strand was peacock green, the other a coppery champagne.

Really large pearls. Out of my league. The white ones are South Sea pearls—same part of the world, different oyster.

I fell in love with the coppery ones but was simply not about to buy them, even at Nan’s fair price. Pearls of this size and quality are in another league entirely, and I just couldn’t go there. I had begun to feel, thanks in no small part to writing this blog, that my jewelry buying was out of control.

So matters stood for eight months. No was still no. It wasn’t like I needed another strand of Tahitians to fill out my jewelry wardrobe. Though in terms of quality, these were surely the best I could aspire to own. I waffled and wavered, and shortly after the election, when my spirits were as low as they could get—so far—I bought the coppery pearls. This was the large purchase that set off the soul searching described in my last post.

I’m not sorry. I love these huge pearls. And I really have lost the manic urge to buy more jewelry. I’ve turned my thoughts to selling instead, to editing my collection and thinking about what will happen when it becomes an estate. Which it will, later if not sooner. The pearls have signaled a sea-change, as Ariel sings in The Tempest:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

The coppery Tahitians in early evening light, on my increasingly crepey neck.

5 thoughts on “Trouble in Tahiti

  1. These pearls are amazingly beautiful, and your neck looks pretty damn good to me! I love the string of steel blue grey ones too.


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