It's impossible to visit Tahiti without developing an appreciation for one of the islands' most iconic emblems and most exquisite souvenirs (especially among honeymooners): the Tahitian black pearl. These iridescent gems, worn by almost every Tahitian as necklaces, earrings or rings, are cultivated in the islands' warm, salt-water lagoons and are for sale everywhere-from handicrafts markets to designer boutiques on Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora and the Tuamotu Atolls.
Here are the basic things you need to know about black pearls:
What makes them black pearls? They are called Tahitian black pearls because the most treasured hue is a dark steel gray with superior luster. However, black pearls are actually available in a variety of shades, which include blue-purple, blue-green, shimmering green, aubergine, bronze and even pink. They are considered black pearls because the "graft" used to create the color comes from the richly colored part of the "Pinctada margeritifera" oyster of the Cumingi variety, which imparts these varied and unique colors to the pearls grown inside them.
Where are they farmed? Tahitian black pearls are farmed primarily in the lagoons of Taha'a, Huahine and Raiatea in the Society Islands, and Manihi, Rangiroa, Fakarava and Tikehau in the Tuamotu Atolls. When visiting these islands, you will see numerous shacks built on stilts above the lagoons. Taking a tour to one of these working pearl farms, most of them family run, to see the cultivation process in action is one of the top things to do in Tahiti.
How are they cultivated? Pearl farmers begin the time-consuming and pain-staking process by collecting tiny microscopic oyster "spat." (immature oyster plankton that are just beginning to grow shells) and raising them, attached to underwater ropes about 22 feet below the surface, until they are large enough to begin the pearl growing process-generally after about two and a half years. The pearl is grown by implanting the oyster with a smooth, round shell "nucleus," which is typically six to eight millimeters, and a "graft" of a piece of mantle from another oyster, which will help determine the pearl's color. To insert the graft, farmers delicately pry open the oyster until they have enough room to place the nucleus and graft into the oyster's gonad, before allowing the oyster to close again. Then the implanted oysters are returned to the lagoon and it takes another 16 months for the pearl to be ready to be harvested. That's a total of four years for a single pearl. Only oysters that create the best pearls are implanted with a second, larger graft (8 to 10 millimeters) and one oyster can be grafted up to four times.
Where can I buy them? Opportunities to purchase pearls are everywhere. It is likely your hotel will have a gift shop or even a pearl boutique selling them. Pearls of lower quality can be bought for around $40 to $60 at local markets, such at Le Marche in Papeete on Tahiti and the handicrafts market in Vaitape on Bora Bora. For top-quality pearls, which can fetch several hundred dollars for a single pearl and several thousand dollars for a well-matched strand, you can shop upscale boutiques, which include those by local jewelry designer Tahia Collins and international exporter Robert Wan.