Say the words ‘black pearl’ and images of saucy pirate Jack Sparrow may flash into your mind. After all, black pearls have always been among the most sought jewels in the world and have, no doubt, been the treasure of many a pirate’s swag. In the Marquesas Islands, however, these luminescent gemstones are a beachside commodity.
While some entrepreneurial Tahitians still dive for pearls in much the same way as prospectors once mined for gold, the pearl industry today leaves little to chance. Pearls are not only responsible for more than 7,000 jobs in the country they constitute French Polynesia’s third most important economy behind tourism and copra.
Creating a pearl is a slow process of careful preparation, meticulous patience and clever grafting procedures to produce profitable harvests. It takes an average of three years from the introduction of a nucleus around which the oyster wraps its nacre (mother-of-pearl), to the time the layer of nacre reaches a thickness of over 0.8 mm. Anything less and the pearl-in-the-making is discarded and scrapped.
The nucleus is actually made in Japan – the only country with the machinery to make the ideal sized 6.3 – 6.8 mm bead, and the bead material itself comes from mussel shell found only in the Mississippi River. These beads are grafted into the oyster, which is then placed in a lagoon for two years before the initial harvest. At that time, smaller pearls are re-grafted to a younger oyster so that a larger pearl can develop. The grafting process must be quick and precise since oysters can live for only two hours out of the water. A single oyster can be cycled into three harvest cycles before it tires of breeding pearls. Since most pearl-oysters are inedible, they are dumped into the seas beyond or shucked for fertilizer.
Three key factors determine the commercial value of a pearl.
First is its diameter: the smallest range between 6 and 9 mm, and up to 10 to 14 mm for the biggest. The largest pearl ever found to date came from the Philippines in 1934. Carbon dated to 600 BC, it weighs in at 14 lb (6.4 kg) and is believed to be the Pearl of Lao-Tzu which was lost in a shipwreck in 1745.
Then comes the quality of a pearl’s surface – the smoother the plane and richer its luster, shine and colour, the more expensive the stone. It is the oyster’s lip pigmentation that dictates the colour of pearl it will produce – oysters have yellow, blue, violet and red lips, so there is some skill – and luck, in co-ordinating budding pearls into their new home. Little wonder that the finished product can radiate everything from blue to gray through green, aubergine or champagne, and all the shades in between. The legend of hues can also add to a pearl’s value: blue beckons love; black promises prosperity; gold signifies future wealth and pink will earn fame and success.
Shape is the last criteria: perfectly round pearls have a higher value than those that are oval, baroque, circled or ringed, drop or buttonlike, even though these various shapes can be equally exquisite. Grade A pearls have less than 10 per cent flaws; those you can buy beachside for a handful of French Pacific Francs (or US dollars) have six times that number but if chosen carefully, can still be made into settings that show only their finest virtues.
Commercial aesthetics aside, pearls also carry an intriguing mythology. The Chinese believed pearls came from dragons, so wear them as protection against fire, as do many sailors and divers wear them to ward off sharks and other dangers. Some old wives’ tales say that giving pearls to a romantic interest is bad luck, because they symbolize tears of eventual separation. Indeed, ancient Indian warriors encrusted their swords with pearls to symbolize the sorrow and tears that sword would bring. For Hindus, the pearl is second only to the diamond in regard and, as a symbol of love, union and purity, it is frequently given as a wedding gift; some people believe that if a woman sleeps with a pearl under her pillow, she will conceive.
For most of us, pearls offer a more tangible radiance. The late Queen Mother was never seen without her signature strands; Glenn Miller’s ‘string of pearls’ is as enduring today as when it was when first played, and as for the inspiration behind Jack Sparrow’s adventures? Let’s just say: let the mythology continue.