The following is an excerpt from Virtuoso Life’s “All the World’s Treasures” by Kathy Schultz. Tahiti is listed by Kathy in her “ultimate guide to gems around the globe” and Brownell can get you there! So if you are enchanted by French Polynesia and the gems it has to offer, read below for an insider’s guide to buying Tahitian pearls.
FRENCH POLYNESIA TAHITIAN PEARLS
Frequently, Tahitian and black pearls are thought of as synonymous. The truth is, Tahitian pearls come in a tremendous variety of colors, sizes, and prices and in hues of bronze, plum, gray, blue, pastel, and “peacock” – a stunning palette of iridescent colors. The darkest gray pearls are known as black Tahitian pearls, which come from the black-lipped oyster. Of all cultured pearls, only 20 percent are black or gray.
Today, 99 percent of pearls on the market are cultured. It is said you would have to open up to 20,000 oysters to find a single natural pearl. Obviously, cultured pearls are the answer to a demand. They’re formed by inserting organic matter, usually oyster shell, into the oyster, which then covers it with fine layers of mother-of-pearl, known as “nacre.” Pearls typically mature in one-and-a-half to three years.
When choosing, look for color, shape, size, and luster. Oysters do not produce perfectly round pearls, and no two are alike, so take this into account when searching for a pair or string. It’s an enjoyable process to sift through these tiny marvels and find a lustrous little prize you love.
Tahitian pearls and producers are closely monitored for quality by GIE Perles de Tahiti, a nonprofit economic interest group created by the French Polynesian government to ensure the integrity of Tahitian pearls and the industry. Pearls are x-rayed at pearl farms to make sure the nacre layer is thick enough to constitute good-quality pearls. No more than nine loose pearls can be individually transported out of the country.
Known for pearls of significant size, Robert Wan is one of the largest producers in French Polynesia, claiming 65 percent of the islands’ production. The Connoisseur collection boasts malt-ball-size pearls of 12 to 18 millimeters. Shoppers will find a glorious selection of necklaces in a huge variety of shapes, colors, sizes, and prices. Designs range from a fusion of Chinese and Tahitian styles to modern creations. Aside from his multiple boutiques (including his Bora Bora flagship shop), Wan created a pearl showcase, the Musée de la Perle.
TAHITI PEARL MARKET
This purveyor of pearls harvests more than 1.5 million specimens each year. The newly opened boutique in Papeete is owner Glenn Tehaamatai’s third shop and a posh rendition of the two original shops on Bora Bora. The showroom has more than 4,000 kinds of pearls, boasting more than 200,000 available pearls at any time. Picking pearls here is an interactive experience. Knowledgeable staff members encourage you to use your sense of touch to “feel the magic of the pearl” and choose the appropriate setting. For a spectacular piece, consider the three-strand twisted color-graduated pearl necklace from the Armonia collection.
Cruise for eight days on Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ 330-passenger Paul Gauguin. Passengers can explore the lush islands of Tahiti, Raiatea, Tahaa, Bora Bora, and Moorea. Off-the-ship activities range from scuba diving, golf, and hiking to shark- and ray-watching. An excursion on Raiatea’s reef to the Anapa Pearl Farm gives you a firsthand look at how the famed black pearls are cultured in black-lipped oysters. Afterward, snorkel along the sparkling reef, where oysters lie beneath the water, slowly laboring to produce these organic gems.