Polynesian pearls seem to be in almost every shop window in the Society Islands. The eye-filling pearls are already set in enticing jewelry creations that can be very, very expensive, and it’s easy to buy inferior pearls if you don’t know what to look for. Ruth wanted a couple of pearls to set in a pair of earrings. She succeeded. Luckily, she connected with a pearl farm owning couple. The husband cultivates the pearls, and his wife sells them. Their pearl farm, unlike many others throughout French Polynesia like sustainable, family-run Kamoka Pearls on Ahe Atoll, can’t be visited. I tried but failed to convince them to let me see it. However, the wife was willing to share her knowledge with me so I could pass it along to traveling, prospective pearl buyers.
Tahitian cultured pearls are distinctive and different from the traditional white variety. They can be any color but are usually in grey to black hues. The color comes from the specialized Pinctada Margaritifera, the black-lipped pearl oyster common in South Pacific Coral reefs. The Gemological Institute of America recognized this dark Tahitian pearl as an authentic natural color 43 years ago, and the International Jewellery Confederation recognized the Tahitian Cultured Pearl as distinctive and separate. Pearl farms proliferated. Tahitian pearls, if they’re real, must “display a continuous pearly layer covering at least 80% of the surface” according to the Moorea & Tahiti Travel Guide that is available in almost every hotel and public place in the Society Islands. The underlying nucleus must not be visible. Pearls aren’t harvested for at least 2 years. Some are allowed to grow even larger and become even more valuable. All are judged by the sorter according to size, shape, and surface.
The problem for the buyer is to not buy fakes or inferiors. Fakes are made of glass or plastic and are unnaturally smooth. Inferiors will shatter in time. Seek a reliable professional to guide you, and don’t buy the first pearls you admire. Ruth spent a lot of time just matching the unset pearls she eventually bought. The pearl cultivator’s wife told me that an X-ray can determine a pearl’s genuineness. A worthwhile pearl has a nucleus of good materials. I learned at the commercial pearl farm I did visit on Taha’a that most pearl nuclei, even for Tahitian pearls, come from shells collected in the Mississippi River Basin. I watched as a young Tahitian woman broke open an oyster, harvested the nucleus, and showed it to me. The cultivator’s wife said the best place to buy pearls is Japan because the government fixes the rules and regulates the market closely. Dimples, scrapes and cloudy spots decrease a pearl’s value. A dull white spot means that the pearl is of low quality because a valuable pearl has layers of color on its entire surface.
Unless a real and valuable pearl is properly cared for, it will probably shatter in time. It’s not a good idea to wear a pearl against skin all of the time. The nacre will wear away, leaving dull patches. Wash all pearls with clean non-salt water after wearing. Pearls like humidity, so it’s probably not a good idea to collect and leave pearls in a frequently opened jewelry box in places like Phoenix and El Paso. Pearls will crack if not in humidity.
It’s fun to visit a French Polynesian pearl farm but probably not a good idea to buy the first pearl one sees.