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Robert Wan

The Black Pearl



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The magic in the name Tahiti has established itself through the centuries on a pedestal of Occidental written and oral tradition. It began as long ago as the arrival of Bougainville on the island, and it has glorified this region until it has become the incarnation of the terrestrial Paradise.
Among the most powerful symbols of this Eden are the myths created by its eminent chroniclers. The "vahine", the colors (thanks to Gauguin), liberty (in the wake of the mutineers on the Bounty) or, more simply, the natural beauty (what travel agency wall is not decorated with a poster representing a beach hemmed by coconut trees?) -- each has contributed to the overall image of a terrestrial Paradise.
Some years back, another ingredient was added to this critical alchemy, and not just anything, considering that it started women dreaming around the world: the black pearl of Tahiti. This new ingredient seems the synthesis of all the preceding myths. The beauty, the colors, and the magic of the South Seas are all to be found in the few millimeters of these spheres of aragonite, little worlds or perfect small planets...
"Fly's wing", "eggplant", an intense gray or black, the black pearl is already inseparable from our Polynesian archipelagos, the only ones on earth to produce this most prestigious jewel of the sea. No coral, be it black or red, no other pearl, be it the size of a marble, is the equal of the sumptuous gems enclosed in the lagoons of French Polynesia. It is the purpose of this book to lead you to discover the world of the black pearl of Tahiti, to succumb to its charms with a full knowledge of its story...

The earliest known stones date to the time of our distant ancestors, the Neanderthals, who were the first to gather unusual round stones, pieces of bone and sea shells, to pierce them and to use them as adornment.
Still in prehistoric times, Homo sapiens, was also fascinated by the beads that he made from egg shells or semi-precious stones, vaguely round, gathered in the rivers -- agate, turquoise, lapis-lazuli.
Later, in Chinese, Indian, Persian, Greek or Roman antiquity, the pearl, itself, grew in value primarily because of its shape, round and perfect, and its orient, if it was iridescent. Its Latin name, "unio", came from the fact that, to the Romans, no two were alike. Each pearl was unique.
The Old Testament refers to the price of these jewels of which the oldest to have come down to us is a three strand necklace, once the property of a Persian princess of the year 350 BC. Then, pearls were gathered from the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the waters around Ceylon, and worn with maximum ostentation during the opulent hours of the Roman Empire, until its decline. The discovery of the New World and the pearls of the Gulf of Mexico (beds of Margarita oysters) brought them back into fashion.

Since long ago, doubtless since humanity's beginnings, the pearl has aroused curiosity as much as admiration. If the veins of schist or the alluvial fans parsimoniously surrender their emeralds, sapphires or rubies, they are only rough stones, "rocks" requiring all the skills of the lapidary to acquire their fire.
The pearl, on the contrary, is offered to man by the oyster, or nacre, in all its splendor. There is nothing else to do `but to hold it in the hollow of the hand and open the eyes wide. It is only normal that such a prodigy raised many questions among our ancestors who palliated their lack of scientific precision with an innate sense of poetry.
The ancient Chinese believed that pearls were conceived in the brains of dragons. Hindu writers link them to clouds, elephants, snakes, wild boars, fish and, occasionally, merely to oysters, themselves.
Later, the gods were held to be the fathers of pearls. Closer to reality, the Greeks and Romans thought that the pearl was created in an oyster thanks to a drop of rain or dew that penetrated between the two valves. The Persians held to the same belief. If a pearl was deformed, it was seen as celestial intervention in the form of thunder. Crystallized dewdrops, seeds celestial or divine? Other versions, even more colorful, have pearls being created by the meeting of a rainbow and the earth.
In the Orient again, one associates the pearl with tears: the tears of angels, sirens, mythical naiads where pain and suffering are occasionally intimately entangled with love and bliss.
In Ceylon, the most touching legend is that which tells how Adam and Eve mourned Abel for a long time. Their tears, gathered to form a lake, gave birth to pearls. Another variation recounts that from the tears shed by Eve after the Original Sin were born white and rose colored pearls. From the tears of Adam were born gray and black pearls, even more rare and precious, as man knows better how to control his chagrin.
Divine or natural, the birth of the pearl always has been synonymous with purity. This was so true that certain ecclesiastics of days gone by saw in the mysterious genesis of the pearl divine intervention of the same type as... Immaculate Conception!

In the heart of the immense blue continent that is the Pacific Ocean are scattered the pearl islands, built of lava and coral, that are French Polynesia.
The land, or rather the lands, here are no more than minute punctuation marks in the ode that the waves compose to the glory of this vast ocean.
All, proud volcanoes or simple coral rings, are no more than tiny concessions made by the sea to the graceful migratory birds and the sea turtles that are able to rest and nest in the shade of the coconut trees. Man, much later, followed the flights of the birds aboard his large double canoes. Charmed by the marriage of the land and the sea, solemnized by the golden band of the coral barrier enclosing the lagoon, he never left.
Everything here is fragile, beginning with the islands, themselves. They are born of spectacular volcanic explosions, only to finish swallowed up forever as if dissolved in and by the cerulean blue.
When it bursts through the ocean floor, the still smoldering island picks up its scars in imposing its mass of basalt on the passions of the sea.. Carried by the ocean currents, the coral larvae attach themselves to its periphery, building, little by little, a fringing pavement of calcareous rock.
Violated by the volcano, the ocean has its revenge, with the complicity of the mother earth. The island sinks under its own weight and finishes by settling back into the depths of the magma, slowly, at geological speeds, measured in millions of years.
The coral, on the other hand, that which has clung so tenaciously to the rocky circumference of the island, being unable to live without sunlight, is condemned to grow. It soon forms a barrier between the rock and the immutable sea. Thus are born the lagoons whose aureoles retain a record of the island's dimensions on the first days of its creation.
The more recent the island, the smaller is its lagoon. The older the island is, the larger its lagoon. It is in this manner that the oases of the South Seas live and die, slowly consumed. Before completely disappearing, they remain for a time as a memory posed, seemingly afloat, on the ocean's surface. Seen from the sky, they appear as simple and fragile rings of coral, the atolls. They show no trace of their volcanic origin, appearing as narrow bands of coconut palms enclosing their lagoons, those parcels of the sea that man has domesticated with the growing therein of the large pearl oysters.

All shells do not produce pearls, but a considerable number of bivalves (dozens of species of oysters and mussels) can produce pearls of at least a reasonable quality. It is in this way that even the mussels grown to delight some gourmet's palate can produce a minute, dark yellow pearl, just as the large tridacna clams of the tropical seas manage to produce "marbles", albeit without esthetic interest.
The most famous of the pearl producing bivalves is Pinctada fucata (also called akoya), to which is owed the traditional white pearls of Japan. This mollusc is found in the temperate and cool seas of Asia (Japan, China and Korea).
A fresh water bivalve of small size, easily grown in Asia, Hyriopsis schegeli, today allows the Japanese, and, even more, the Chinese, to inundate the market for small pearls at low prices. Varying widely in color, these pearls run from a creamy white to pink, passing through shades of golden yellow.
Pinctada margaritifera is the large nacre that produces the black pearl of Tahiti, a nacre that one finds throughout the tropical Pacific. An adult nacre (life expectancy: 15 to 30 years) can weigh up to five kilos.
Pinctada maxima is the largest of all. Cousin of the Pinctada margaritifera, it can weigh well over 5 kilos, and it produces the highly regarded "South Sea Pearls". It is found primarily in the waters off Southeast Asia and in the seas off Broome, in Australia (gleaming cream, pink and pale yellow).
Another very beautiful nacre, with a wing-like shape to its shell, known for the fabrication of "mabe", is the Pteria penguin, common in Asian seas, particularly in the waters around Phuket in Thailand.
Pinctada maculata: usually called by its better known Polynesian name of "pipi", a small nacre producing tiny golden pearls, the "poe pipi". A mini-nacre compared to the Pinctada margaritifera, it lives in the same biotope.

The "pearl oyster" of French Polynesia is a misnomer as the animal, Pinctada margaritifera, to use its Latin name, is a large nacre of the family Pteriidae, know around the world for the quality of its nacreous secretion . Pinctada margaritifera, which we will call nacre for simplicity's sake, is classed with the giant shells of tropical seas, An individual adult can attain a diameter of 30 cm and a weight of over five kilos. Certain specimens of this nacre, also nicknamed "black lipped pearl oyster" have been known, occasionally, to reach a weight of nine kilos.
The nacre develop essentially in the lagoons, but they are also found on the ocean side of the reef. In the Marquesas, for example, where the islands are not hemmed around by lagoons, the nacre grows wild, attaching it self to the rocks. Because of the rather rustic living conditions, it does not grow to any size there, as it would do in a calm lagoon.
A particularity of the Pinctada is its sex changes during the course of its life, changes that also can be prompted by stress.
We know today that during the time of the female cycle, the nacre lays eggs all year long, with two peak periods falling at the changes of season. A nacre must be two or three years oldbefore it is capable of reproduction. Only the extraordinary quantity of eggs deposited by these bivalves (tens of millions per specimen), can assure the survival of the species in its natural habitat. The spermatozoon, to fertilize an egg, must depend on a chance encounter.
Next, the larvae are the prey of all animals feeding on plankton. Finally, the shell, while it is still young is the target of numerous carnivores particularly the triggerfish, dreaded by the pearl growers.
Fragile, Pinctada margaritifera demands constant care from those who have taken up the challenge to raise them.

A Japanese named Kokichi Mikimoto is generally recognized as the inventor of the grafting technique that permits forcing a nacre to produce a pearl more or less on demand. The first cultured pearl (a mabe, as it happens) was harvested on 11 July, 1893 in Ago Bay, Japan. However, historians tend to credit another Japanese, Tatsuhei Mise, who obtained the first round cultured pearl in 1904, as the father of this art. Still another Japanese, Tokishi Nishikawa, discovered the secret practically at the same time, but both were obliged to wait several years for their techniques to become officially recognized. The two licenses of Mise and Nishikawa were registered in 1907. In 1908, Mikimoto filed his patent, and the three documents became in a sense the birth certificates of the grafting technique.
The outmoded technique of Mikimoto consisted of wrapping a small artificial nucleus in a piece of nacre flesh and sliding the sizable lump into another "oyster".
This procedure proved rather heavy-handed and a traumatic piece of surgery for the nacre when this important foreign body was inserted in the organism. For this reason, the mortality rate was quite high. The more delicate techniques that consist of introducing only the nucleus and minute slip prevailed rapidly. In this sense, Mise and Nishikawa were in the right, as they were the developers of this technique. However, their colleague had the merit of a rapid understanding of the market to be exploited. It was Mikimoto who was the real promoter of cultured pearls, first in Japan and afterward throughout the world. Incidentally, beginning in 1914, Kokichi Mikimoto undertook avant-garde research on a nacre but little known at the time, the...Pinctada margaritifera.
Basically, what is the difference between a "fine pearl" and a cultured pearl?
By "fine pearl", one designates a small sphere of calcium carbonate, more precisely aragonite, formed by a bivalve confronted by a foreign body accidentally introduced into its tissues. This intruder can be a simple grain of sand, or a small particle of almost anything that bothers the animal. When this happens the nacre, in a defensive reaction, begins secreting a thin coat of aragonite, a material that is the same as that of its shell, around the intruder. This secretion is produced while the foreign body is kept in constant rotation and becomes isolated by hardened layers of this secretion, whence comes the pearl's generally rounded shape.
The cultured pearl is, on the contrary, the fruit of the intervention of a human being on a bivalve. It is the grafter who artificially introduces an intruder into the animal. The object is to constrain the nacre to start his defense procedures working to isolate this foreign body by drowning it in aragonite. The bead introduced artificially is called a nucleus, and, usually, one must add to it a tiny slip of the mantle of another nacre. It is with the insertion of this minute addition that the secretion of the aragonite begins.
If pearls and shells reflect and refract light so differently, it is simply because the secretion is spread in one case spherically, and in the other, horizontally. This stacking up of thin layers of aragonite (there are about a thousand coats in a pearl of quality) permits light, sunlight or artificial light, to play on the micro-crystals of aragonite, determining what is called the orient of a pearl.
Without delving too deeply into technique, one should remember that a "fine pearl" and a cultured pearl are both "natural" pearls, produced by a bivalve. There is never a question of "artificial pearls" produced without the intervention of the natural process of elaboration of the nacre. The essential difference between fine pearl and cultured pearl is that the latter has a nucleus. Moreover the nucleus is readily visible under X-ray when a pearl owner has doubts. If, as concerns antique jewelry, doubt is often justified, it should be mentioned that, on today's world market, the "fine pearl" has nearly disappeared.

Frequently, one hears allusion to "pearl oysters". This is a misnomer at best, as the molluscs making the pearls in French Polynesia that are destined for jewelry are large nacres, taxonomically Pinctada margaritifera.
From earliest times, these nacres were used by the Polynesians, the first colonizers of the islands of the South Seas. The shells had utilitarian value, certainly, but they were also highly regarded for their ornamental and decorative worth. It was with them that ancient costumes were decorated with large, highly polished nacres, shimmering bronze and iridescent, which added without doubt to the majesty of those who wore them.. It is a fact that, throughout their history, the nacres have always interested man. This enthusiasm was not for the pearl they might enclose (one pearl for 15,000 nacres, it was said) but for the beauty of the shells.
After the ancestral ornaments, shirt buttons and a mass of other uses were found for the nacre (inlay work, keys and frets of musical instruments, etc.).From the beginning of the 19th century, the archives of Polynesia make mention of a harvest of nacres. The first ship recorded as participating in this commerce was the "Margaret", carrying a cargo of shells between the Gambiers and Australia in 1802. With the demand constantly increasing, the number of ships plying this trade to San Francisco, Valparaiso or Sydney multiplied for decades in perfect anarchy. Only around the end of the century did the French administration move to control this unrestricted traffic.
At a cost of a piece of yard goods or a few of the knickknacks of modern society -- a knife, wire or a sack of rice -- it was easy, at the time, to acquire tons of shells. Moreover, this harvesting, in reality more of a raid, with no real effort made to manage the natural reserves, continued until after World War II.
Yet, already in 1870, Dr. Bouchon-Brandely, sent from France to make a study of this primary resource, sounded the alarm in predicting that the lagoons would finish by becoming deserts. Whereas, at the beginning of the 19th century, certain visitors stated that one had difficulty walking in the shallow water, so vast was the number of nacres with their sharp-edged shells. By the beginning of the following century, it had become necessary for the divers to go deeper and deeper to find nacres of an acceptable size.
At the time, an entire folklore was born around the diving campaigns. The divers descended occasionally more than 40 m, ballasted by an eight kilo piece of lead on a line. A pair of diving goggles , a glove and a basket net constituted the only equipment of these adventurers. They had to be constantly on the lookout for large moray eels and sharks, as well as straight diving accidents. The infamous "vana taravana", which caused a diver to lose his reason, was an all too common occurrence.
With highs and lows, both in production and price, what was called "pearl shell diving" continued into the sixties, even though the invention of plastic buttons had sounded the death knell for this occupation.
Before World War I, the annual harvest of shell rarely surpassed 600 tons. Between the two Great Wars, the annual harvest averaged more than 1200 tons (1350 tons in 1924: the predecessor of today's dive mask, extremely efficient water-tight diving glasses having been invented). It dropped back down to less than 1000 tons after World War II (500/800 tons per year), finally ending in 1979 with ... two tons. The Tuamotu and Gambier archipelagos were systematically controlled. The depletion of the resource imposed several tight restrictions. Quotas per atoll, severely limited diving seasons, years of rest (one diving season every four years) and broad sectors where no diving was permitted, genuine reserves, became the strictly enforced rules of the game.
Faced with this dramatic impoverishment, from the beginning of the 20th century, experiments, not in reproduction but in the collecting of "baby nacres", the newly spawned, were carried out. Unfortunately, the uncontrolled pillage still brought in enough shell so that general indifference carried the day.
In 1954, the urgency of the situation was such that the Fisheries Service decided all the same to comply with the recommendations made by preceding specialists. The collecting of the spat of the nacres on supports (usually on bundles of sticks of miki miki, a small bush native to the Paumotu shores) was started again on several atolls. If the results were never extraordinary, on can affirm all the same that this work, although rather empirical, saved the species from complete disappearance.
Since it was not a question directly concerning the gathering of the shells, the collecting of the nacre spawn aroused no enthusiasm among those who earned their livings from nacre. Because it supposed a medium term planning, the whole idea was at odds with local tradition. Fortunately, this modest maintenance of the resource made possible, in the 1970s, the mobilization of available forces to increase the number of nacres, thus meeting the challenge of the potential of perliculture.
Pinctada margaritifera came very close to extinction. Thanks only to the obstinacy of the research workers, rarely helped or recognized in the first decades of this century, these precious bivalves can today be counted in millions of individuals ... Because of the heedless collecting of the shells, the black pearl very nearly missed seeing the light of day... Takapoto, Manihi, the Gambiers, Marutea are the atolls where the collecting of the spat gave excellent results, thus permitting the re-launching of pearl growing activities. This was possible only because the natural stocks of nacres had not been completely exhausted. It was a very close call, nonetheless!
In 1995, 484 tons of pearl shell were exported for a total value of 1,5 million EURO.

The salvage of the last living nacres in the Tuamotu lagoons coincided with a quickening of interest in the pearl that Pinctada margaritifera produced in times past, albeit very rarely. The ancient Polynesians, moreover, unable to work with or pierce these natural curiosities, accorded them little value.
Jean Domard, a veterinarian by profession, and endowed with a well-developed curiosity, took up the work of his predecessors, and, in the early sixties, visited Japan, there to study exhaustively the Japanese grafting techniques. Appointed director of the Fisheries Service in Tahiti, he rapidly became convinced that exceptional pearls could be obtained from the grafting of the large Polynesian nacres. He worked at his idea with total dedication, and, in 1965, he made his first test harvest. The cultured Polynesian black pearls saw the light of day for the first time, a light that was eclipsed by their sumptuous orient. Jean Domard succeeded, thanks to a Japanese pearl grafter that he had had the wisdom to bring in from Australia, after having suffered a number of failures trying to do his own grafting.
However, the general public was not ready to recognize and profit from the fabulous opportunity offered to all Polynesia.
A local journalist, Koko Chaze, adventurous and enterprising, crossed the path of Domard and plunged, for starters, into the production of half pearls. Koko then established himself on the atoll of Manihi and made his first harvest just one year later.
During that same period, a family of Parisian jewelers, the Rosenthals saw Jean Domard's first collection. The father had them recognized by the Gemnological Institute of America, and his two sons became the business associates of Koko.
In 1970, our three "farmers" undertook their first production of round pearls, a wager that they would win.
Other courageous pioneers -- Paul Yu, Dr. Jean-Paul Lintilhac, an esthetic surgeon, Jean-Pierre Fourcade, Yves Tchen Pan (who introduced pearl culture to the Cook Islands), Jean Tapu (former world champion spear fisherman), Jean-Claude Brouillet (founder of Air Gabon) and, finally, Robert Wan, nicknamed "the emperor of the black pearl". Robert, as he is called familiarly by friends and associates, reigns over three immense pearl farms in the Gambier Islands. He also owns the atoll of Marutea Sud (with three other farms), the atoll of Nengo Nengo (one farm), and Anuraro (one farm). He is also implanted on Fakarava (one farm), Manihi (one farm) and Katiu (one farm).
In years past, he has weighed in up to 70% of the pearl production of all French Polynesia. Even today, he harvests over 50% of all the black pearls produced in the territory.
Another pioneer merits mention for his dynamism and ardor in promoting the Polynesian black pearl. Salvador J. Assaël, is a New York gem wholesaler, not a pearl farmer. He is one of those who succeeds in imposing these gems of the South Seas on the most prestigious jewelers in the world, from Manhattan to the Place Vendome in Paris.

The success of the early pioneers of Polynesian pearl culture produced simultaneously the envious and the emulators. In reality, pearl culture literally breathed new life into certain of the Tuamotu atolls. Before the development of this new activity, the severely depressed economies of these remote islands encouraged their inhabitants to decamp to the bright lights and employment potential of Papeete.
The exciting potential of this new bonanza proved to be the saving grace, for example, of Takaroa and Takapoto in the Northern Tuamotu.This was equally so in numerous other atolls where the number of requests for maritime concessions necessary for the installation of a pearl farm virtually exploded in the eighties. Hikueru, Fakarava, Kauehi, Makemo, Anaa ... today, a large number of atolls have concentrated most of their energies to produce black pearls. The end of the period of trial and error at the technical level, and with prices at their highest, everything came together to send the requests for maritime concessions to a series of record highs. More than 800 requests were received at the end of the eighties and more than 2000 in 1990 and in 1991.
The machine began to run at top speed, and, on certain highly coveted atolls, such as Takapoto, occasional brawls broke out between established farmers and the new arrivals.
Collecting, in the lagoons that lend themselves to this practice, and grafting are two very distinct aspects of this industry as, if certain lagoons adapt particularly well to the production of pearls, they are sometimes poor in nacre reproduction. Because of this, there are incessant transfers of young nacres, by plane and by ship, among the Tuamotu atolls, operations which are not without risk to the ecological balance of the lagoons. Epidemic diseases are spread, and the mortality rate is occasionally very high in the colonies of nacres, before or after their grafting, because of one or another virus too quickly overrunning an area.
This unbridled competition among the pearl farmers caused, logically, a disorganization of the market. There were too many small producers, often deeply in debt, all forced to sell their production at the same time, to the same limited number of buyers. Further, their pearls were often of a mediocre quality.
The laws of the marketplace quickly began to re-establish the equilibrium of the situation, and a number of pearl farm experiments ended in total failure.
The official statistics of 1996 concerning the number of maritime concessions granted show only 2,010 collecting concessions, 1603 farming concessions and 1328 grafting concessions were authorised during this year. However, all these concessions do not necessarily conceal producing pearl farms behind what is merely administrative paper work.. Finally, the bulk of the farms resulting from these concessions englobe, each one, all three concessions and all three activities. Nonetheless, one can consider that there are more than 1,000 functioning pearl farms, essentially in the Tuamotu and Gambier lagoons.
Recently, in the nineties, the Society Islands, particularly Maupiti and Tahaa, have, in turn, launched into this activity. Because of this, one sees today the little "fare greffe", or grafting houses, set on slender pilings and with their corrugated iron roofs, in the lagoons of these islands. On the other hand, the Austral islands do not seem propitious to pearl farming. This also holds true of the Marquesas where their coasts, unprotected by barrier reefs do not lend themselves to this commerce. Even so, the Pinctada margaritifera are found in small numbers, clinging to the coastal rocks in relatively shallow water.
The GIE Perles de Tahiti kindly offered us their statistics on black pearl exports from French Polynesia over the past few years.

Robert Wan: Today, his name is part of the legend of the black pearl. With his warm smile and iron fist, he had to learn to perform every function involved in the production of black pearls to succeed in such a striking manner. For him, all began modestly in the Gambier.
In 1973/74, Mr. Stein of the Fisheries Service pushed him in the wake of the first pioneers. Robert Wan was convinced that this new activity, at the time developing slowly and erratically, held great promise. His meeting in Japan with Mr. Sato, an 80 year old professor and a friend of Mikimoto, decided him.William Reed had created "Tahiti Perles" in the Gambier Islands. Robert Wan bought the young company in 1974 and began his first grafts in 1975. The early results were not brilliant. Twenty thousand nacres were grafted and, two years later, the harvest yielded barely 1,700 pearls.
Robert Wan is not a dreamer but a businessperson. There, where others would have been discouraged, he persevered, he persisted, he fought. "I am stubborn", he said. His obstinacy paid off, as, in 1979, his enterprise finally moved firmly into the black. He could have been satisfied with sitting back and counting his profits, but he preferred to reinvest everything in the business, on both the technical and the commercial sides. "I live 100% of my time for the pearls." In 1984, he bought the atoll of Anuraro. Then, when Jean Claude Brouillet, after being battered by two terrible cyclones, decided to retire, Robert Wan bought his island of Marutea in 1985. Some time later, he bought the atoll of Nengo Nengo. This was followed by the purchase of several other pearl farms on various atolls. A workaholic in every sense of the word, he is as much at home in his office, juggling fax, telephone and time zones around the world as he is on one of his farms, feet in the water, nacre in his hand.
One must always innovate, and, in addition, one must win the most difficult battle, that of the world markets. Robert Wan attacked the Japanese market, while Jean Claude Brouillet assaulted the United States. The synergy of these marketing efforts consolidated the lead position of "Tahiti Perles". This does not prevent Robert Wan telling, with humor and humility, of his first sales where the prices he received were not a quarter of the prices he anticipated.
Optimist by nature, his strength also comes from his sense of the realities of life. It is said that he is vigilant and mistrustful. In every case, he is attentive, because "the cultured pearl is very costly to produce". He is the first, the biggest, certainly, with more than half of all the pearls of French Polynesia, but without ever giving the impression of being at the top of the ladder. Robert Wan has fought the battle of the black pearl every day for the past two decades. He continues to do so today with the same faith, the same convictions, the same passion because, as he admits quite freely, "I love pearls".

The evocation of pearl culture brings us to use a certain number of technical terms. It is worthwhile to learn their meanings before plunging into this universe.
Here are the key words of the language of the pearl growers.

Ferme: the global term for the installations, both terrestrial and submarine, that are needed to produce cultured pearls. One speaks freely of pearl farms, but of pearl growers, rather than pearl farmers.

Station: A term designating the undersea installations implanted in the lagoons between the surface and the bottom, on which the nacres destined for grafting or already grafted are left to grow.

Fare greffe: the small building that is a part of each farm, often built on pilings over the water, where the grafters operate on the nacres.

Detrocage: The process of separating the young nacres which have a tendency to clump together in the greatest disorder on the collectors. Once separated, each nacre is cleaned, then pierced followed by being suspended at a submarine station, where it will grow until it is large enough to be grafted (around 11 cm in diameter).

Perle (pearl): A generally rounded concretion, hard and glossy, made of nacre bound in successive and concentric coats around a foreign body. They are found in a certain number of molluscs of both fresh and salt water.

Mabe: A half pearl obtained from a nucleus inserted under the mantle of a nacre. (Exports in 1994: 24.2 kilos valued at one million French francs).

Manteau (mantle): Found in all molluscs, it is a fold of flesh covering and protecting the viscera of the animal and which secretes the nacreous fluid that solidifies into the layers of nacre thatcomprise the shell. The manteau, itself, does not adhere to the shell.

Naissain: The name of the swimming larvae of bivalves (oysters, nacres, mussels) prior to their attachment. By extension, the name naissain also designates the very small nacres attached to the collectors, after the larvae have concluded the benthic stage of their lives and have attached themselves to a support.

Collecteur: An artificial method of furnishing small tree trunks, branches of miki miki, lattices, metal fencing, etc. ... to the free swimming larvae of the nacres, as points of attachment.

Nucleus or noyau: A tiny pearl grown in the shell of a bivalve living in the Mississippi River. It is the "foreign body" introduced into the nacre, with the greffon at the moment of grafting.

Greffon: It is a tiny fragment of the manteau of a nacre that is slipped into the gonad of the nacre being grafted, at the same time as the nucleus.

Keshi:In a sense, an unsuccessful black pearl, as it happens occasionally that the grafted nacre rejects the nucleus, retaining in the gonad only the little greffon. Lacking a clearly defined shape, it nonetheless manages to stimulate the production of aragonite. As a result, the nacre produces a natural pearl with a highly irregular form and without a nucleus. (Exports in 1995: 57 kilos valued at 5.3 million French francs.)

Poche perliere: An appendage into which are introduced the nucleus and the greffon during the grafting.

Greffe: An operation performed by human hand and consisting of introducing a nucleus and a greffon into the poche perliere of a nacre, in order to have it produce a black pearl. A good grafter can perform this operation around 300 times per day.

Surgreffe: An operation consisting of harvesting a black pearl produced by a nacre after a first greffe. Immediately after harvesting the first pearl, one re-introduces another and larger nucleus than the first into the poche perliere, thus pushing the nacre to produce a second pearl of larger diameter.

Aragonite: A carbonate of calcium, Ca CO3, it is an integral part of the shells of aquatic molluscs and the essential component of the pearl.

Conchyoline: Organic matter found in small quantity in a pearl (around 5%), serving as a supporting screen for the aragonite.

Orient: This is the play of light on a pearl. It can vary according to the manner in which the coats of aragonite are deposited on the noyau of the pearl. Certain pearls have a weak orient, tending to have a matte surface. Others have a very deep orient, as the light seems to play in the depths of the nacreous layers of the pearl.

Lustre: It designates the brilliance -- on the surface -- of a pearl placed under a direct light. This is not to be confused with orient, the pearl's inner glow.

Blister: Found on the inner surface of some nacre shells, it is often the result of the nacre having trapped a foreign body between the shell and the manteau. The aragonite of the shell's inner surface becomes blistered by the decomposition of the imprisoned organic body.

The connoisseurs employ several criteria in evaluating and choosing a black pearl of Tahiti. However, above and beyond all the established standards, no matter how rigorous, remember that the choice of a black pearl is, above all, a matter of love at first sight. Buy a pearl primarily because you like it!
The principal criteria employed are the following: the size, orient, lustre, color, shape and the purity of the pearl.


Larger than the Japanese pearls, the Tahitian black pearls can attain impressive dimensions.
Pinctada margaritifera produce pearls with an average diameter of nine to ten millimeters. Pearls larger than 11.5 mm are much more rare. Those that go beyond 15 mm are exceptional. Moreover, there exist black pearls that are larger than 20 mm in diameter...

Orient and Lustre:

At the time of the formation of the pearl, the nacreous layers are laid on,one over the other. The orient of the pearl depends on the quality of these layers.
The orient is the play of light, deep among the layers of aragonite, in a sense the source of its radiance. It is the manner in which the nacre reflects and diffuses the light through the crystals of aragonite secreted around the noyau.
The orient is an indicator of a pearl of high quality.
The lustre is the reflection of light from the periphery of the pearl. It defines its brilliance on the surface. It is the glitter of the pearl.


There is a certain relationship between the color of a pearl and the color of the nacre's manteau.
The "poe rava", the Tahitian name for black pearls, are not all of a very dark color. The color of reference, "black", grades out through all the nuances of gray to grays so pale that they are nearly white. From this "basic black" is derived all the variety that so enhances the charm of the black pearls of Tahiti. There do not exist two identical black pearls, anywhere in the world. The glints of color can vary from a metallic gray to gold. The splendid spectrum between encompasses pink, green, blue, cream, peacock green, eggplant, bronze. Occasionally, a mix of all or nearly all the colors offers a rainbow. Eggplant (deep pink) and wing of a fly (metallic green) are two shades that are much sought. Here again, appreciation and choice are, above all, matters of personal preference.


If the Japanese pearls are all round, the black pearls offer to the enthusiasts a wide choice of shapes. Beginning with the perfect sphere, they run the gamut from button to pear to drop to encircled to oval to the complete baroque construction. Certain shapes are particularly original and are much in demand, but the classic round pearls and those in the shape of a pear remain the surest investments.
When one buys a pearl, apart from its shape, it is wise to verify that it is symmetrical to avoid, subsequently, wearing an unbalanced jewel. The rarest are those that are perfectly round and symmetrical, and their prices are the highest.


Take a black pearl in your fingers. Is it striped? Does it show signs of scratches, small holes, unevenness, abrasions, spots, roughness? Only a methodical examination, done slowly and carefully, permits one to detect the defects that can mark a black pearl. One must patiently study it from every angle to appreciate the degree of its perfection. If the pearl is not mounted, just one small, very localized defect can make it possible to buy it at a lower price than if it were perfect. Afterwards, it can be mounted in such a way that the minor defect is totally concealed by the mounting.
It is extremely rare to find a pearl that is totally exempt of all microscopic imperfections, a pearl deserving to be regarded as "naturally perfect".

And what about the keshi?

During the process of creating a black pearl, it can happen that the nacre rejects the noyau. It can then form keshi, pearls without a nucleus, of small diameter and of baroque configuration, offering a large variety of shapes, sizes and colors. These little pearls, much appreciated, can often command the price of normal pearls.
The keshi constitute superb elements of adornment, thanks to their often silvery brilliance, their fantastic shapes, their novelty and their light weight.

Pearl classification (by Tahiti Perles Company)
Category Orient Eclat Faults
Top Very deep Very high None
A Very deep Very high Infinitesimal
B Very deep High Some
C Deep High Infinitesimal
D Deep Medium Some
Rejects Weak Weak Important

Using this quality barometer, baroque pearls or half rounds can show the physical traits needed to be used in creating pieces of high quality. As for the keshi, their size, their texture and their brilliance serve as the essentail criteria in making one's choice.

The Black Pearl Museum
At the instigation of Robert Wan, "Tahiti Perles" has created in Papeete the "Musée de la Perle", a museum of the black pearl of Tahiti, dedicated to the informing of the general public.
Its creators and initiators began with the simple principle that, if one is to appreciate pearls, one must know something about them. With the black pearl having come into existence but recently, is still veiled with an aura of mystery. This is certainly favorable to its somewhat magical image, but not that compatible with a gem destined to conquer the world.
The difficult wager of the museum was won on how to conserve for the black pearl of Tahiti the dream it conveys. While doing this, its story, its development and the difficulties of its production needed to be clearly explained. The realization of this museum, unique of its type, must be credited to Guy Wan, the son of Robert Wan. He has melded most successfully ancient and modern objects, mock-ups, both written and photographic documents and audiovisual presentations.
In one little hour, the visitor, totally uninformed when he enters the museum, can acquire the knowledge necessary to the discernment and appreciation of the quality of a pearl. At the same time, he can learn something of its genesis.
The museum also shows, and it is to the honor of those who conceived the idea, that it is endowed with a certain cultural dimension. Integrated among the exhibited objects are the everyday or ritual objects made out of nacre that accompanied the lives of the ancient Polynesians.
Already in its second decade of existence, this museum has seen many thousands of visitors pass through its door. It has become a point of reference for all who, one day, had the good fortune to peer into the glass exhibit cases at these little beads of aragonite that are the black pearls. It is a truly handsome teaching, promotional and even cultural tool, so much has pearl culture become an integral part of the life of French Polynesia.

Collectors of fine stones know too well. Be it in Brazil or Thailand, it is never easy to backtrack the trail from jewelry to the mine that produced even one gem. It is not a simple task to plunge into Minas Gerais to prospect for tourmalines, topazes or other aquamarines; even more complicated is it to penetrate to a ruby rich alluvium along the Cambodian border. To visit the emerald mines at Muzo or Chivor in Colombia would be quasi-impossible. Danger, a taste of mystery, secret trafficking, black market are among the valid justifications advanced for distancing the tourists from all that might bring them anywhere near the sources of precious stones.
This rule, however, suffers some exceptions, and the black pearl is one of those gems of which one can discover its mysterious elaboration while lodged in a comfortable hotel implanted in a paradisiac lagoon.
Accordingly, we propose to you an initiation step in the actual birthplace of Polynesian pearl culture, the atoll of Manihi. It is here in the North of the Tuamotu archipelago that this industry was born a few decades ago. On this atoll, about 500 km from Tahiti, a hotel, the "Kaina Village", was created by one of the pioneers of Polynesian pearl culture, Koko Chaze. He established a tradition, of marrying the classic visitor pleasures of an atoll to the discovery of the black pearl. A few years ago, the hotel was sold, then completely rebuilt by the new owners. Thanks to a friendly complicity between them and the local pearl farmers, they have continued the practice of systematically opening the world of pearl culture to the guests of the hotel.
Thus a stay, however brief, at "Manihi Pearl Beach Resort Hotel" provides an immersion in the world of the pearl. The pearl farm of Laurence and Remy Bouché, proprietors of the "Compagnie Perlire des Tuamotu" is always wide open to visitors. The hardier and more decided types can even organize diving excursions with the hotel's diving center, "Tahiti Blue Nui",around the stations where thousands of nacres seem to doze, their body tissues secreting in the silence of the lagoon the "makings" of the precious black pearls.
There are, of course, a number of other possibilities in the Tuamotu archipelago, and even in the Leeward Islands, to observe pearl culture. One can stay in a pleasant family pension and visit the nearby small pearl farms. However, there is no doubt that the idea of pearlicole tourism started in Manihi, and it is there that it is the best organized. It is an entrance door to open before visiting the jeweler.

The most celebrated artist of French Polynesia is unquestionably Paul Gauguin who passed into posterity, thanks to his mastery of Tahiti's vivid tropical colors. This painter of genius was also a sculptor, a fact less widely known to the general public, and two of his works highlight both the nacre and the pearl.

Idol with a Shell

Height: 27 cm
Diameter: 14 cm
Wood: Tou. Personage seated in the lotus position and decorated with nacre (halo and breastplate) and bone (teeth).
Paris, Musée d'Orsay. Acquired from Mme. Huc de Monfried, contingent on usufruct, 1951; moved to the Louvre, 1968.

This idol is the most savage of the sculptures Gauguin qualified as "ultra savage" in a letter to Daniel de Monfried. It brings together elements stemming from totally disparate sources to illustrate episodes that the artist judged fundamental to the ancient Polynesian myth of the creation of the universe. It is one of these two known works that could correspond to sculptures of which Gauguin spoke in another letter to de Monfried, probably written around August, 1892.
The principal personage, sitting with crossed legs, is identifiable because of the shell that is his halo as Taaroa. According to Moerenhout, who implied that the natives worshipped idols comparable to those of Easter Island, "Taaroa is lucidity, he is the seed, he is the base, he is incorruptible. The strength that created the grand and sacred universe is only the shell of Taaroa."

The Idol with the Pearl
Probably 1892
Height: 25 cm
Diameter: 12 cm
Tamanu wood, polychromatic and gilded. Personage seated in the semi-lotus position, decorated with a pearl and a gold necklace with a star-shaped pendant.
Paris, Musée d'Orsay. Gift of Mme. Huc de Monfried, 1951. Placed in the Louvre, 1968.
The idol with the pearl was one of several works chosen by Gauguin to be photographed for publicity purposes. Incertitude still subsists as concerns its date and, therefore, the place it occupies in the evolution of the artist. The principal personage of the idol with the shell is of the masculine sex and the shell halo identifies him as Taaroa, the supreme diety in the Polynesian pantheon, while the idol with the pearl, the analogous personage, has long hair and breasts. :The pearl incrusted in the forehead of the statuette could conceivably correspond to the tuft of hair visible on certain images of Buddha, and refer to the interior vision associated with a third eye. If one proposed to interpret this pearl as was done with the shell of Taaroa, the star-shaped golden pendant with which Gauguin adorned his idol has no apparent symbolic relation with either this god or with Buddha.

Certainly, everything has been said, written, thought or dared as concerns the marriage of black pearl and Woman.
The one and the other seem indissolubly bound up together, so numerous are their points in common: charm, softness, sensual pleasure, mystery...
There is no doubt that the first is made to wear the second, each one heightening the charms of the other.
A still stronger image brings Woman and the black pearl together. It is in pain that the second is conceived, the pain of the surgery that is the grafting, and it is also in pain that the pearl is born. The parallel with Woman is evident and creates a subtle supplementary bond between these two symbols of femininity.
Another parallel, the loving care that must be given a pearl, is like that one must offer the most fragile and demanding of beautiful women. Precious natural gem, the black pearl, because it is a living thing (it contains proteins, conchyoline and also a very small quantity of water) can die from lack of care.
Thus did it happen in the past that white pearls, occasionally closed up for decades in strongboxes, finished up as simple lustreless beads, without brilliance or orient. The same thing can happen to a black pearl which -- much like a woman -- cannot endure physical, chemical or thermal aggressions.
For this reason, one must avoid exposing black pearls directly to perfumes or deodorants. One must also protect them from contact with detergents, corrosives and, in general, all household cleaning products. For a better conservation, it is recommended to immerse them from time to time in a bath of lightly salted water.
As pearls are not very hard, they should never be kept in the same box with other, harder gemstones, as, inevitably, they will get scratched. A rule without exception, given the sensitivity of aragonite to acids, is that hair lacquer and perfumes be applied before putting on pearl jewelry, and not afterwards.
Finally, a light rinsing to remove any trace of perspiration before putting away a piece of black pearl jewelry is time well spent. Rinsing, drying and light polishing with a piece of chamois on which a few drops of a gentle oil have been spread completes the maintenance.
No one can understand a pearl and satisfy its needs better than a woman. The black pearl will retain all its brilliance, all its freshness and all its iridescence only when in contact with a personality who will know how to anticipate its desires. A "pearl of queens", the "queen of pearls" deserves attention, just as she who wears it.

Around the end of the 1960s, the black pearls of Tahiti were completely unknown. The first harvest of Jean Domard in 1965 left the jewelry world totally indifferent in the sense that no one knew this pearl. It took the enthusiasm of the pioneers like the jeweler Rosenthal, the producers Jean-Claude Brouillet and Robert Wan, to gain entry for the black pearl into the exalted company of the world's top ranking gems.
Robert Wan forced recognition and acceptance of the black pearl of Tahiti in Japan, the world's primary pearl market. MM. Rosenthal and Brouillet, for their part, turned toward the United States and Europe. They were later relieved by Salvador Assaël, widely known New York wholesaler and an unconditional fanatic of the pearls of the South Seas, the "Black Pearl of Tahiti" as well as the "South Sea Pearl".
In 1976, the G.I.A., "Gemnological Institute of America", gave formal recognition to the authentic character of the cultured pearls of Tahiti. In 1989, the official designation of this gem became "Perle de Culture de Tahiti", the appellation decided upon by the CIBJO, "Confederation Internationale de la Bijouterie Joaillerie et Orfèverie".
During the 1980s, Tahitian pearl culture saw a development without precedent in the Tuamotu, and even in the Leeward Islands. The local administration, aware of the fragility and inexperience of the producers facing the laws of the market, federalized their commercial interests within an organization of shared economic interest, the "GIE Perles de Tahiti". This institution, financed by export taxes, undertook a formidable promotion campaign with its sole object being to make known the Tahitian black pearl throughout the world. The GIE multiplied its prestige operations, whence the traditional "Journées Internationales de la Perle", a festivity held each year in Papeete. The biggest jewelers of the planet, the Parisians of the Place Vendome, the Italians, the Americans, the Japanese have all participated through the years. Today, the world's largest and most prestigious jewelry houses have adopted the black pearl as prized raw material for their top of the line creations. At the same time, the number of celebrities and stars being seen adorned with superb black pearl jewelry is ever increasing. This would seem to affirm that the little "poe rava" has made triumphal entrance into the wide world.
Among the master jewelers regularly utilizing black pearls in their creations, we cite Van Cleef and Arpels, The Mikimoto Company, the houses of Adler, Cartier, Chanel, Fred Joailler, Mauboussin, Poiray, Tiffany, Verney, to mention but a few...
A work, published in 1996, illustrates well the communion between the black pearl and the profession of creating high fashion jewelry. "La Perle de Tahiti as Dreamed by the Grand Jewelers" is a breathtaking showcase of jewels, each more sumptuous than the others...