French Polynesia’s economy thrives on Tahiti pearls – but a great deal of luck and even more understanding go into producing these treasures.
A deafening silence reigns on the beaches of French Polynesia. Most of the islands are surrounded by a lagoon shielded from the open ocean by coral reefs. The turquoise waters are bathtub-shallow; no breakers destroy the postcard idyll; no crests of foam ride the waves. Inside the reefs, yellow, blue and glittering silver fish raise their young undisturbed.
Silence is sublime. But the waves off Rangiroa are even more wonderful, Surging noisily toward the coast, racing the dolphins. The island lies all alone in the Pacific like a giant ring of sand, a narrow strip of land in the middle of nowhere, with the ocean greedily licking at its edges – half friend, half foe.
The largest island in the Tuamotu Archipelago, Rangiroa is the home of marine biologist Philippe Cabral. He came here from Tahiti to grow a treasure that exists in this form only in French Polynesia: black pearls. He coaxes them from the oysters he keeps for the purpose in the lagoon there.
The only road on the island inevitably also leads past Gauguin’s Pearl, Cabral’s oyster farm. Cabral, 58, has been growing his mother-of-pearl treasures here since 1990. He’s sporting flip-flops, a white singlet that reveals lots of well-tanned skin and a mustache; friendly eyes gleam beneath bushy eyebrows The water glints in the background, where motorboats bob in the tiny harbor, and between two palm trees, there’s a pile of rubble that was swept up after the last storm. A concrete pavilion provides shadow for Cabral’s employees. One of them is just drilling holes in the oysters, pulling through cable ties and fastening the creatures to ropes that will later be let down into the waves. Another is wearing a rubber apron and carrying a machete, which he uses to hack at the mollusks and rid their shells of coral and algae encrustations, sending them swirling around him in the air. What looks like a really brutal onslaught actually serves to protect these sensitive creatures: Their “lodgers” hinder the oysters’ growth – and therefore also that of the treasures growing inside them.
In the yard, large warehouses and boats bear witness to better times. Pearl production is a major branch of industry in the small French overseas territory; in 2014, pearls accounted for 67 percent of exports. But now the market is ailing and prices are steadily falling, as buyers become choosier while inferior products flood the market. Many small businesses have long since given up. Of a former 1700, only around 460 farms have survived. Cabral’s farm is the last remaining operation on Rangiroa, where once 15 thrived. “The wholesalers used to pay 5000 francs per gram for the pearls, but today we get 500 francs for the same quantity. And plus, we cannot sell them all; the market is oversaturated,” says Cabral. He used to have 100 men working for him; today, there are just 20 left, and they are part-timers.
Two of them have a particularly responsible job: They are the “surgeons.” Armed with forceps and scalpel, they insert a nucleus into the mollusks as soon as they reach the age of two. An oyster will protect its organism from a foreign body by coating it with mother-of-pearl. The result: a cultured pearl. But oysters are highly sensitive creatures. The surgeon only has a very narrow gap through which to reach the soft tissues inside the shell with his instruments, and just half a minute to make the cut and insert the nucleus. Once the oyster is back in the water, all Cabral and his men can do is wait and see. It’s up to Nature now to decide what color the pearl will be and whether it will be round or have little dents. The more comfortably an oyster lives, however, the rounder and more gleaming its pearl.
Oysters are sensitive creatures. If the ocean heats up too much, they become stressed
The workers take care of several hundreds of thousands of oysters outside in the lagoon, covering the 100 hectares of water that Cabral rents from the government in small, open motorboats. They release the baby oysters into the lagoon, regularly clean their shells of algae and sponges, harvest the mature animals and return the fertilized ones to the lagoon. Seven meters below the surface, cages full of oysters hang from the ropes they have strung there. The water is 27 degrees warm down there, and that is actually far too hot for a pearl farm. If the lagoon heats up to over 30 degrees, the men have to stop work because then, the mollusks need to be left in peace, since high temperatures exhaust them. But the water in the lagoon is steadily growing warmer. “In 20 years’ time, there will be no more oyster farms here in the north,” says Cabral. The falling PH value of the Pacific is also a huge worry – oysters cannot survive in acid water.
The marine and mineral resources agency Direction des Ressources Marines et Minières (DRMM) in the capital city, Papeete, oversees pearl exports. Until now, only pearls with a nacre – that’s the outer layer of mother-of-pearl – of at least 0.8 millimeters deep could be designated “Tahitian pearls” (to be precise: “pearls cultured on Tahiti”) and exported. The DRMM destroyed all the rest. That quality control ceased to exist at the start of 2017. A new law that allows the farms to produce a certain quantity of pearls each year depending on their size replaced it. The intention is to protect the lagoon environment and reduce the quantity of exported pearls. Cabral fears that the law will not be enforceable. “Even now, the leasing of the lagoons doesn’t work as it should,” he says, “and many farmers on the remote islands just do as they like – they lease ten hectares of water but use a hundred.” The government agencies lack sufficient staff to monitor far-flung farms.
Cabral has been able to keep his head above water so far, but only thanks to the tourists. Every year, around 190 000 visitors come to French Polynesia, and they represent a second important source of income for the islands. “Without the tourists on Rangiroa, Gauguin’s Pearl would no longer exist,” says Cabral. These days, roughly 20 percent of his revenues come from direct sales to visitors. Everyone here who can take in guests, does so.
On the small island of Huahine northwest of Tahiti, Peter Owen has woven an adventure concept around the cultivation of pearls. As a teenager, Owen fell in love with a Polynesian. They married and Owen moved to Tahiti at age 19. There, he learned all about oyster farming and cultivating pearls from his father-in-law and later took over the business. Today, the native Californian runs a hotel on Huahine and is the second-biggest private employer on the island, with 40 employees. His pearl farm is now run solely as a show business. The thatched cabin stands on stilts in the middle of the lagoon, its walls, posts and doors all lovingly decorated with shells and mother-of-pearl fragments. Visitors are ferried across to the small island from the mainland in large groups.
People buy a story when they buy a pearl
Before the economic crisis struck, Owen was producing some 50000 pearls a year, today it’s just a few hundred. These he sells in the form of earrings, necklaces and key rings. He always wondered why so many people visited his farm, he tells us. “At some point, I realized that when they buy a pearl, they buy a story. They saw the water it came from; they got to know the producer and the work that went into it.”
An employee demonstrates the implant operation on an opened oyster. She has a fragrant flower tucked behind her ear – the tiare, Tahiti’s official flower and emblem. Nearly everyone in the country wears at least one of the Polynesian insignia: the elderly vendor at the vegetable market has a floral wreath on her head, the young singer in the capital, Papeete, a traditional tattoo, and the vanilla grower has a Tahitian pearl on a chain around her neck.
Philippe Cabral also sells a story, a mystique. During a guided tour of his pearl farm, his visitors can take a look over the surgeons’ shoulder. That way, they get to see how many deformed pearls, , crooked little mother-of-pearl worms, Cabral’s men pull out of the ocean in a day. Only four percent of the crop is good quality, making the specimens Cabral exhibits in his small boutique all the more desirable. There, he has glass showcases filled with rows of bowls brimming with pearls, all graded according to shape and quality. The cheapest, with surface scratches and irregularly shaped, cost roughly 40 euros. A Brazilian woman is moving around the store, searching. On her back, she has a fresh tattoo. Outside in the shadow, her husband waits; on his T-shirt, the logo of a hotel on Bora Bora. He and his wife are on a sailing tour of the South Seas and have already visited a number of pearl farms, he tells us.
Stéphane Ripa, who has been working for Cabral for the past 12 years, helps the Brazilian woman to make her choice. A golden turtle, visible inside his open shirt, gleams against his bronze chest. He made the turtle pendant himself and studded the shell with a pearl. The diamond at the creature’s throat has already worked loose of its setting and departed forever. Ripa tips the contents of one of the bowls onto a fabric tray: semibaroque, class B. With a practiced finger, he rolls the pearls over the fabric. Like an agile spider, his ringed hand flits across the tiny silver, green and blue beads until only a few are left. If the pearl wobbles, if dents spoil its surface, if the color is one-dimensional or its pearlescence is dull, he flicks its aside: reject. How can he decide so quickly? He shrugs and grins. “Some pearls speak to me, some don’t,” he says.
Ripa reaches for his customer’s hand to check the color of her skin. Then he leaves it palm upward and places a small selection inside her cupped fingers. He lets his gaze wander briefly from pearl to pearl before pointing decidedly to one particular specimen. The woman nods. A breath of pink gleams on bright silver, the surface has a transparent shimmer, as though you could see to the center of the pearl: a jewel from the Pacific, a souvenir from the end of the world.