There are several ways you could become the owner of a fabulous black pearl. The most straightforward, of course, is to go to a jewelry store near you and buy one or more, set in a lustrous necklace of perfectly shaped globes or a pair of elegant earrings. A more expensive but surely more thrilling option would be to fly to Tahiti for a week’s vacation and buy your pearls in a jewelry store there, because French Polynesia is where these exotic pearls originate.
Or you could get on a sailboat in Florida, brave 8,000 miles of wind and waves, venture to the Tuamotus (aka the Dangerous Archipelago), and enter a “lottery” in the hope of claiming a glossy black prize.
Why can’t I ever do anything the easy way?
Actually, our 540-mile leg from the Marquesas to Fakarava in the Tuamotus was, almost literally, a breeze. The wind was blissful, the sea was gracious, the sky was as blue as a bluebird’s wing. Overall, it was probably our best sail yet. But the Tuamotus have long been known to sailors as the Dangerous Archipelago for good reason. The longest chain of atolls in the world, they stretch for roughly 900 miles and comprise nearly 80 low-lying coral atolls, many of which are uninhabited and unlighted. Even nowadays with GPS, it is unwise to approach them in the dark for fear of putting your boat up on a killer reef.
Fakarava coral reef, looking out to sea
When you do arrive at your chosen atoll, it is strongly recommended to time your entrance through the passage into the lagoon for slack tide. Otherwise, the tide can race through the passages at up to five knots, which would either stop Corroboree in her tracks or create a wild sleigh ride. Also, you must be wary of a wind versus tide situation, which can create a severe chop. That’s why we chose Fakarava as our destination. The second largest of the atolls at 37 miles long x 13 miles wide, it at least has a wide passage and a well-marked channel through which to maneuver. And here again we were lucky, arriving in mid-morning just an hour before high tide and motoring in with only a bit of turbulence.
Fakarava lagoon with submerged coral heads
A final danger is that once inside the lagoon, you must still navigate with extreme care not to come into contact with one of the numerous, submerged coral heads. Just before leaving the Marquesas we had disturbing news that friends on a catamaran struck an uncharted coral head on the atoll of Makemo and had to make for a shipyard in Tahiti for repairs. These same coral heads can entrap your anchor and chain. We therefore decided that once we found safe anchorage on Fakarava we would stay put and enjoy our surroundings rather than try to visit every last nook and cranny of the atoll. Sometimes the effort to get somewhere is so nerve-wracking, it sucks all the joy out of being there.
Fakarava grocery store
Fakarava Church – the chandeliers are made of seashells
And we did enjoy our week-long sojourn on Fakarava, renting bikes to explore along the one main road, eating a leisurely lunch at an outdoor restaurant on the beach–they had veggie burgers!–finding treasures like fresh tomatoes in one of the two little grocery stores, admiring the colorful décor of the village church, and watching the other sailboats come and go. But the most interesting experience was dinghying over to the dock of the Hakaiva Pearl Farm where an enthusiastic young man named Hugo explained in French and English the steps in cultivating black pearls.
Hugo explains black pearl farming
Also called Tahitian pearls, they can be produced only by a specific type of black-lipped oyster, the Pinctada Magaritifera. The process takes four years and begins by collecting tiny baby oysters, called spats. In the protected waters of a pearl farm, the oysters must grow for at least two years before they are large enough to start producing a pearl. Then, using tissue from a donor oyster carefully selected for its rich black color, an expert grafter inserts a bit of the tissue and a 6-8 mm bead into a series of host oyster shells. The beads or nucleus are made from Mississippi River mussels especially for this purpose and act like the grain of sand in the formation of a natural pearl as the oyster covers the irritation with layers of nacre.
The implanted oysters are then inserted in protective nets and resubmerged for another two years. Throughout this time, the outer shells must be scraped clean periodically so the oyster can filter the water and stay healthy. The nets must be raised or lowered as necessary to ensure a consistent water temperature. The pearls, when finally harvested, come in a range of colors, depending on whether they form in the band close to the black lips of the oyster or elsewhere in the nacre. Thus, a Tahitian pearl can be any hue from white to silver to gray to black with iridescent green, blue or violet tones. The bigger and blacker, the more valuable. If an oyster produces a high-quality pearl, it may be reseeded for another round.
All of which Hugo explained in the hut on the end of the dock, after which he laid out a selection of oyster shells. Now for the lottery. For $35 you can pick a shell, have Hugo open it for you—the tension mounts!—and see if it contains a valuable pearl. But no worries. If the oyster reveals only a tiny specimen or nothing at all, you get to choose another shell. Then take your pearl up the dock to a jewelry counter at the hotel where, at no additional charge, they will polish it and string it on a cord. You even get to keep the shell.
So without further ado, here is my very own black pearl. May you someday find your way to French Polynesia and possess one, too.