French Polynesia. Feb. 8, 2021. “Buy Tahitian pearls now before they get rarer,” exclaims world-renowned Tahitian pearl grower Robert Wan. He’s referring to how the pandemic has affected his beloved black pearls, grown in French Polynesia, a nation that encompasses more than 121 islands in the South Pacific. Wan has been culturing black pearls in the islands since 1974, but the global pandemic has paved the way for a new circumstance: Chinese grafters who went home for Chinese New Year in late January 2020 have been unable to return because of border lockdowns.
Wan is not the only Tahitian pearl farmer facing this issue. In 2019, French Polynesia had 358 Tahitian pearl farms, and about 75 percent of grafters on those farms were Chinese nationals. When COVID-19 flared in early 2020 and French Polynesia closed its borders to prevent the spread of the virus, as many as 70 percent of those grafters who went home to China for celebrations were unable to return (and still have not to this date). This predicament roused farmers to take better advantage of local grafter talent and inspired the government to exponentially ramp up existing training efforts of Polynesians.
“We have been training grafters since 1993 in our pearl farming training center, and many small-scale farms are actually run by them,” explains Clarisse D’Hervilly, who manages the pearl sector of the marine resources department in French Polynesia. “And we are putting new training programs in place for local grafters.”
Tahitian Pearl History
Tahitian pearls grow in a rainbow of colors, from deep green to blue to black and more, in the Pinctada margaritifera pearl-producing oyster. Spanish explorers brought home shell for mother-of-pearl after they sailed to the island nation in the 16th century, though not much is known about the rare naturally occurring Tahitian pearls from that time beyond their presence in the possessions of the royal Tahitian family.
In 1961, French veterinary surgeon Jean-Marie Domard organized the first successful graft with Japanese technicians after convincing the local government to fund efforts. The results revealed an incredible array of colors that had never been seen in the market. According to Pearls As One, the online educational platform from the Cultured Pearl Association of America, Domard directed Japanese technicians to operate “on 5,000 black-lipped mollusks on the atoll of Hikueru and the island of Bora Bora. Four years later, the first cultured Tahitian pearls were harvested.”
Tahitian pearls started earning international recognition in the 1970s when Jean-Claude Brouillet, who purchased the Marutea Sud atoll, and New York businessman Salvador Assael teamed up. They saw the potential of the exotic beauties and enlisted more Japanese grafters to go to French Polynesia to operate—i.e., implant mother-of-pearl beads into the black-lipped shells. When Assael introduced the pearls to the Tiffanys and Cartiers of the world, it didn’t take long for their mysterious beauty to gain appreciation. Today, Tahitian pearls are one of the most sought-after gems in the world, respected and revered for their otherworldly natural colors, which come from the lip of the oyster or mother-of-pearl that they grow in. Their status as a luxurious organic gem coveted by stars, high-end jewelry houses, and consumers around the globe, is firmly in place.
For years, Japanese grafters dominated the pearl-grafting scene in French Polynesia. But in the late 1990s, the number of Chinese grafters in the islands started to mushroom, eventually outnumbering their Japanese counterparts.
Today, farmers produce more than 9 million pearls a year. Along with tourism, Tahitian pearls are one of French Polynesia’s greatest sources of revenue, and its biggest export.
The lack of grafters in Tahiti and its surrounding islands in 2020, coupled with restricted travel and no trade shows at which to sell stock, has left growers in a pickle. Online pearl auctions have had limited success given that it’s not so easy to inspect pearls through photos and videos. At the moment, dealers and growers have a healthy reserve of pearls (remember that number of 9 million pearls exported annually?), but what happens in 2023–2024 when oysters that were seeded in 2020–2021 need to be harvested? Grafting oysters must occur in order to ensure new pearls down the road, but a two- to three-year production cycle must take place to produce one Tahitian pearl.
“Even if demand is there, if there is no production, you can’t make [pearls] fast,” notes Loïc Wiart, founder and CEO of Poe Black Pearl, who works with 100 different producers in the islands, buying entire lots from 12.
Fewer grafters equals fewer grafts, which leads to fewer pearls. “With 70 percent fewer grafters since last March, you can easily do the math,” says D’Hervilly.
Farmers like Alexander Collins of Collins Pearls, whose farm is in Takaroa in the northeastern part of the Tuamotu archipelago, a 90-minute flight from the main Island of Tahiti, is predicting a dearth of Tahitian pearls starting as early as the end of 2021. Why? Many pearl farmers are currently cash strapped since they couldn’t sell inventory overseas, letting some pearls go at low prices, a point that Wiart recognizes. “Hong Kong [the trade shows] is 60 percent of our sales,” he says.
Peter Bazar, president of Imperial Pearl, which imports a large number of Tahitian pearls for business, is aware of the impending situation. “What they didn’t seed last year will become a supply concern this year or the next,” he observes.
Both D’Hervilly and farmers see the writing on the wall: Tahitian pearls will become even more rare and precious than they are now, causing prices to possibly increase. An impending production quota system from the government, a move to ensure better-quality pearls, will fuel this scenario.
Fred Sagues, owner of Black Market Pearls, agrees. The importer, who travels to and from the islands sourcing (when a pandemic isn’t raging), has been able to buy up more and better pearls of late, which he has had success selling online to a U.S.–based designer clientele. High-quality pearls that retain their value, coupled with a growing demand for products of a sustainable origin, can equal greater cachet for Tahitian pearls. Plus, if production levels decrease in the coming years, “better-quality pearls will be selling at higher prices,” he says.
It’s a prediction that Wan would like to see come true. “We want prices to increase given the scarcity of our products, and above all, to restore their true value.”
Drop earrings in 18k white gold with 8–9 mm Tahitian pearls and 0.30 cts. t.w. diamonds, $3,000; Baggins Pearls, available online at Baggins Pearls
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