Marjorie sent me a book about Tahitian pearls. It contained a lot I didn’t know, so I thought I’d pass on some of the information that is still true and likely to be so for a long time.
French Polynesia, which contains several island groups with names like Disappointment and The Australs, is the only place on earth that produces black pearls. However, black is a bit of a misnomer since pearls from the South Pacific Ocean can be many colors–eggplant, green, bronze, etc.
Humans have been decorating their bodies with stones, bones, and shells since Neanderthal times. Persian royalty were adorning themselves with local pearls by 3,500 BC. Romans in The Empire collected pearls from the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea too. In the New World, most pearls came from the Gulfs of Mexico and California. Beds of Margarita oysters were the source, and they were mostly white.
There are, of course, many myths and legends associated with these soft gems. The Chinese valued pearls and believed they came from Dragon brains. The Greeks knew that pearls formed in oysters but believed that they came from a drop of rain or dew.
On a page of Perle de Tahiti there’s a photo of the world’s largest one. Called the Pearl of Allah, it was found in the Philippines and looks like an unbaked loaf of bread. As a child I recall being terrorized by a movie in which a pearl diver got his hand caught in an oyster. He drowned. This actually happened to the man who discovered Allah’s pearl. The Tahitian black pearl comes from the Pinctada margaritifera oyster and is fairly large compared to the white pearl producing species. Some pearls have weighed up to 11 pounds, the world’s largest natural pearls. All shelled sea creatures do not produce pearls.
The Japanese learned to create cultured pearls via a grafting technique that forced an oyster to produce nacre by introducing a foreign object into it. Mikimoto patented this technique in 1908. A naturally produced pearl is called a “fine” pearl, and they are increasingly rare and valuable. These natural pearls begin when a grain of sand or any other small particle irritates the oyster to the point that it begins to coat it with nacre, producing a pearl. Cultured black pearls have only been around since 1965. All pearls, including cultured ones, are expensive to produce.
While in French Polynesia today, many tourists go to pearl farms and enter buildings built on pilings over the water. These are called “fare greffes” and become the place where grafters work when the tour groups aren’t around. Most of the artificially introduced nuclei in cultured pearls come from bivalves living in the Mississippi River.
In this book the pearl buyer is advised to choose a pearl because she or he likes its size, luster, color, and shape. The perfectly round ones are the most popular and the highest priced. Learn how to care for a pearl and expect the nacre to wear away over time. Don’t store pearls with other, harder jewels to avoid scratches. It’s rare to find a pearl without imperfections. Black pearls without a nucleus (this can happen if the oyster rejects the introduced irritant) are called keshi.