Pearls of Wisdom

Yep, I could be a farmer. A pearl farmer, anyway. No worries about dirty fingernails or broken tractors. Just spending time surrounded by crystalline waters teeming with beautiful reefs and incredible fish. Yes, I have no doubt that I could get used to it. My biggest problem would be selling my products. I would want to keep every pearl I harvested. We spent Friday morning at Anapa Perles in the pristine waters of Raiatea and it was a fantastic morning. Not only did we get an education in pearl farming but we also snorkeled above the coral garden just down the ladder from the farm.


We were picked up from the dock on the island of Raiatea by Patricia, a French woman, and Rollo, her Polynesian partner, and we sped across the water to the farm. As you can see, it doesn’t look like any farm you have ever visited. There is a reason the work of creating pearls is done right over the water. When the oysters are brought up to have the nucleus implanted, the oysters must be returned to their watery home within two hours.  Bringing them ashore to do the work would waste too much time and the oysters would die. I am going to share with you how the oysters are made as briefly and as best as I can.

The process was developed by the famous Kokichi Mikimoto of Japan. He created the first cultured pearl in 1893. Keep in mind that a natural pearl is extremely rare, found in about one out of thousand oysters, so without cultured pearls, we would not have them to enjoy as we do today. Mikimoto said, “My dream is to adorn the necks of all women around the world with pearls.”

The pearls created at Anapa Perles are two year, four year, six year, or eight year pearls. This means that they grow in the lagoon 2, 4, 6, or 8 years from the time they are implanted with the nucleus. The nuclei are made from the shell of a mussel found in the Mississippi River, of all places! The nuclei are in different sizes and are kept in an antiseptic solution to cut down on the risk of the oysters getting an infection. Below is a picture of Patricia holding a mussel shell from the Mississippi River, then a picture of Patricia holding the oysters from the island of Tahaa. The picture below that is of the various sizes of nuclei.



This cross-section shows the nucleus and surrounding mother of pearl.


Eight, six, four, and two year pearls.


Rollo has been creating pearls for over twenty four years and it shows. He is quick and confident as he goes about his work. At Anapa Perles, they use oysters from the waters surrounding the island of Tahaa because the color of the mother of pearl that these oysters give the finished pearl is more desirable. In these parts, white pearls are considered rather “meh.” The black pearl is the gold standard here with its myriad shades of gray, green, and blue. In order to get the oyster to make a pearl the desired color, the sac, or gonad, must be implanted with a tiny segment from an oyster having the desired color of mother of pearl inside of it at the same time the nucleus is implanted. Below are photos of Rollo snipping tiny segments from an oyster of the desired color, opening the shell slightly, snipping open the gonad, and implanting the tiny segment and the nucleus.


Rollo cuts tiny pieces to implant with the nucleus.


He gently pries the oyster open just a tiny bit.


It’s not really clear, but we were able to peek down into the oyster and see where the nucleus was implanted.


There was a pearl in this oyster, so Rollo implanted a larger nucleus.


If an oyster creates a nice pearl after two years, the gonad is implanted with a larger nucleus when the two year pearl is removed, as above. Since the gonad is stretched from the two year pearl, it can accommodate a larger nucleus and after two more years, there will be a larger pearl. Then it will be implanted with a six year nucleus, then after that, an eight year nucleus. Who knew an oyster could live long enough to produce all those pearls? Pearls often are not perfectly round and many people really like the odd shaped ones. Below is a picture of a keshi pearl and after that is a picture of a couple of baroque pearls.

Of course, I had to choose a few souvenirs to take home from our visit to Anapa Perles. After shopping, we cooled off by snorkeling in the beautiful water around the farm. It was a perfect pearl of a morning!

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