Gabriel took us back to his guesthouse, where he had pearls and jewelry on display for sale. “Uuuuhh! Look at how perfect these are!” It was a necklace of 20 identical pearls for $350.
“Geez, the Mother-of-Pearl makes this bracelet look amazing… Gabriel, is it possible we can have some shells?”
He shrugged and let us grab a few from the piles of black bags in his yard. The Mother-of-Pearl shells were stinky from the rotting muscle and many were broken due to rough handling.
Despite its incredible beauty, the Mother-of-Pearl is not valuable. It is abundant, since it is the inside shell of most bivalves! The pearl, on the other hand, is extremely rare in the natural environment.
In the wild, pearls are formed when sand gets inside the shells of the oyster, which basically acts as the graft. To protect itself, the oyster forms “nacre” around the sand granule, and a pearl is formed. But the chance of finding a wild oyster with a perfect pearl is 1 in 15,000 oysters.
Thanks to the sophisticated techniques developed for pearl farming, about over 20% of farmed oysters develop pearls; half of these are marketable as good pearls, and 3% are perfect pearls.
Despite this relative “efficiency”, salt water pearls are still very scarce (and even more so, this special Tahitian variety) because they can only be grown 1 at a time in an oyster.
In contrast, fresh water white pearls can be grown up to 25 at a time per oyster! China is now the biggest producer of white pearls. The scarcity of Tahitian black pearls keeps their values high (although prices have been dropping in recent years due to overproduction).
The result: lots of cash is flowing to the people of Gambier. They have nice cars to drive around their tiny island; and nice finishing in their houses. But apparently, they don’t have much time to enjoy their island paradise.
“What do you do for fun? Do you like to fish?” I asked Gabriel, as he lit up a cigarette.
“For fun?” he looked quizzically. “We work for fun.” He took a puff.
“Sure, but on the weekend? Or when you take a vacation?”
“Ha. We work every day. We take a break on the first day of May,” he smirked.
I thought he was exaggerating, but later we got a ride up the hill with a nice Mangarevan lady with a hibiscus flower behind her ear (the right ear, indicating she was married). She was petite, driving a green Landrover. She also managed a pearl farm.
“Do I go on vacation?” she smiled, in response to my question.
“Everyday the oyster must be worked, and everyday we must supervise. I can’t go anywhere… We are slaves to the pearl.”
Later that same day, I saw two kids in a Landrover with the same nice lady. She must have picked them up from school. But wait– now the Landrover was white, not green!
“I thought your Landrover was green?” I asked her, confused.
“Yes, well we have two of them,” she answered.
Really?? Seems a little excessive for living on an island that is 10 miles long, but I said nothing.
My first impression of walking around Rikitea now made sense. As people swept their patios, they were polite and friendly, but they seemed preoccupied… and not particularly interested in us.
There was in incongruity — it felt like we were in a larger town where people are anonymous and busy in their day-to-day. It
didn’t feel like people here were living on a tiny bit of dirt on the edge of the Pacific with one street. Could these Polynesians actually be… workaholics? Driven by the non-stop, profitable pearl cultivation?
I was changing my mind. At the pearl farm, I thought the oysters might be cursed for their ability to produce pearls, so that humans can make such nice profits. Now I was thinking, maybe it is the other way around…
With several (imperfect) pearls in our treasure chests, it was now time for us to sail away from Mangareva. My freedom suddenly felt very valuable. True enough, this is a verdant Paradise, with a cash-cow that lets people purchase $80 bottles of rum and matching Landrovers. But being stuck to a cash-cow may be its own curse. After all, nobody likes to be a slave, even if it is to a pearl.
Photo: As they husked the shells at the pearl farm, we were given some of the oyster’s meat. Instead of a slurpy oyster shooter, the oversize black lipped oysters are more similar to a scallop, in terms of what can be eaten. Their bigger size generates larger than usual pearls… adding to the mystique of “Tahiti’s black pearls”.