By Hayley Lewis for Metro.co.uk, Traveller. Adventurer. Foodie. Blogging at www.alovelyplanet.com. Follow on Instagram @alovelyplanet
Tuesday 25 Dec 2018 8:00 am
The islands of Tahiti are undoubtedly a honeymooners paradise, where loved-up couples can relax in over-water bungalows while sipping a cocktail.
Unsurprisingly, tourism is the main industry here. But the islands are also producers of an equally romantic product: black pearls.
Tahiti is, in fact, the largest producer of black pearls in the world and they account for over 55% of its annual exports.
I have to admit I was totally ignorant about how pearls are made. I assumed that all pearls were found in wild oysters at the bottom of the ocean, but I learned that this isnt necessarily the case.
And in fact, most pearls are commercially farmed.
A natural pearl occurs when fragments of shell, a parasite or even a blister appears inside the oyster.
The oyster then regards this as a foreign object and covers it with mother of pearl (nacre), which is excreted from the mantle (the fleshy part of the mollusc).
While it is possible to find natural pearls, these are extremely rare, and in most cases they are small and often oddly shaped – not what is considered beautiful in the pearl industry.
The beautiful round pearls you find in upmarket jewellers on Bond Street are generally cultured pearls, and a lot goes on behind the scenes of these exotic jewels.
In order to create a round pearl, a pearl starter known as the nucleus must be inserted into the oyster. In Tahiti, the nuclei are made from mussel shells from the Mississippi River, which are thick and strong.
Over time, the nucleus will be coated in mother of pearl by the oyster just as it happens in nature.
The method was created in 1893 in Japan by Kokichi Mikimoto, and further developed in Japan and in Australia, before being used to cultivate pearls around the world.
In French Polynesia, black-lip oysters are used to create the pearls, and it is the oysters mantle that gives the pearl its black colour.
However, its not as simple as just inserting a nucleus into the oyster and a pearl appearing.
It takes time and skill to produce pearls, and even then, there is no guarantee that a pearl will be produced, or that it will beautiful.
I headed to Rangiroa, an atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago, to find out more.
Gaugins Pearl are one of the biggest producers on the island and the owner explained that oysters must reach three years old before they can be used to cultivate pearls.
At this point, one oyster must be sacrificed as part of the process. It is selected based on the colour inside its shell – the more beautiful the shell, the more likely the pearls will be beautiful.
This sacrificed oyster is opened and its mantle cut into 1mm pieces. These are then inserted into other oysters along with the nucleus with painstaking precision and speed.
Once the oyster has been grafted, it must go back into the ocean for 18 months to allow the pearls to develop.
The oysters are placed in nets to protect them from predators such as turtles and triggerfish.
Watching the oyster grafter at work was like watching a surgeon.
In fact, it takes a lot of skill to become an oyster grafter and you can find the only black pearl school in the world in Rangiroa.
The government-funded school was founded in 1988 and teaches students all aspects of the pearl industry, from business and accounting, to the technical and scientific elements required to produce pearls, along with practical skills such as diving and how to drive a boat.
The 3-year course includes an internship at a pearl farm on one of the islands of Tahiti, and most students are then hired by a farm or go on to start their own.
I cant imagine there are many schools in the world in such a stunning location, with lagoon views on one side and the open ocean on the other.
We decided to take a closer look at those predators on a dive with Top Dive, the islands biggest dive company, who offers two-tank dives for approximately £141.50 (19,000 XPF).
Rangiroa, and in particular the famous Tiputa Pass, is considered one of the best dive spots in the world, where schools of sharks, dolphins, manta rays and a plethora of fish can be seen.
Up close, I could easily see the problems caused by triggerfish, whose sharp teeth are strong enough to break coral.
They can actually be quite aggressive if you get too close to their nest, so we kept our distance!
Back on dry land, we headed to another island famed for pearls – Tahaa.
Here, we visited family-run Champon Pearl Farm on the south of the island.
Owner Maeva told us that each oyster shell can create up to five pearls in their lifetime.
If the first pearl created is considered beautiful then another nucleus will be placed inside the oyster, this time larger than the first.
This process will be repeated, but each time with a larger nucleus – providing that the previous pearl produced is beautiful.
So what makes a pearl beautiful?
There are a number of criteria when classifying a pearl; these include size, shape and lustre.
Unsurprisingly, the bigger the pearl, the more valuable – but only if the pearl is good quality.
Round pearls are more highly prized, with fewer than 3% of those produced achieving a perfect round grade.
The lustre relates to the shine of the pearl and how many imperfections it has.
So if you want a large, round, imperfection-free, shiny pearl, you can expect to pay a lot of money.
Colour has very little to do with the price of the pearl, unless the pearl is truly black. Otherwise, it is more a case of personal taste.
Despite being called black pearls here, the colour can range from green or pink to silver and yellow.
Back on the main island of Tahiti, we headed to the Papeete market (Marche de Papeete) to check out the pearl offering there.
I couldnt leave French Polynesia without purchasing a pearl or two.
After a little research, we discovered that its cheaper to buy loose pearls and have them set into jewellery back in the UK, as there are only a few jewellers on the islands and youll often pay a lot more for the setting than for the pearl.
Each pearl is unique and I left the islands with a memento that will always remind me of French Polynesia, as well as a far greater understanding and respect for these underwater gems.
Other things to do in French Polynesia:
There is plenty to do when youre not relaxing in paradise or hunting for pearls.
Take a boat trip to the stunning, untouched paradise of Rangiroas blue lagoon with Rairoa Fishing Tours. A day tour costs £67 (9.000 XPF) per person including lunch.
Or go on a fishing trip and catch some big game, including Marlin and Mahi Mahi. FishingBooker offers a variety of trips with local skippers. Fishing trips in Tahiti start from £550 (USD $700) for a private boat charter (1-4 people).
Where to stay in French Polynesia and how to get there:
I visited three islands – Rangiroa, Tahaa and Tahiti.
On Rangiroa, book a beach bungalow with jacuzzi at Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa. Rates start from £331 (44,460 XFP) per night, while its American breakfast is £27.50 (3,706 XPF) per person per day.
Or theres Vaa i Te Moana, where double rooms start from £141.50 (19,000 XFP) per night, including breakfast.
In Tahaa, a Tahaa Overwater Suite at Le Tahaa Island Resort & Spa starts from £550 (€630) per night.
And finally in Tahiti, a standard double room at Relais Fenua starts from £85 (11,400 XPF) per night. Breakfast is an additional £9 (1,200 XPF) per person, per day.
Fly from London to Papeete via Los Angeles with Air Tahiti Nui and airline partners from £1,689 in economy class.
For more information on the Islands of Tahiti visit Tahiti Tourisme UK.
(Top picture: Hayley Lewis)