“The Chinese are much better at grafting the pearls than the Polynesians,” said Gabriel, who is a local Mangarevan himself. He is the son of the owner of this pearl farm. Gabriel then clarified: “They have a better work ethic than us!”
We could quickly see why the job required careful attention. Like a dentist with too many patients to see, the Chinese grafter moved the fine stainless instruments at hyperspeed. He plunged a sharp tool into the oyster’s lips to pry it open 1/2 inch.
Then with his other hand, he jabbed a pair of long needle nose pliers into the oyster, which carried the all-important “graft”. With precision, he inserted the graft in the specific spot he wanted. Then he quickly closed the oyster, and moved to the next one, as another worker scooped up the newly grafted oyster to return it to its aquatic environment. The work has to be done fast for the oysters to survive.
The “graft” becomes the pearl. The black lipped oyster which grows almost solely in Tuamoto’s and Gambier’s lagoons turns the graft into a color similar to its shell: usually dark, but it can also have many hues of green, blue, yellow, or silver. The actual substance it secretes is called “nacre” – which is the beautifully iridescent, glossy layer you see inside the shell of bivalves.
The origin of the graft they use is unexpected. It is the bead from a mollusk shell (along with some mantle tissue) that grows in Tennessee (of all places!). Apparently, the Tennesse mollusks have the perfect “softness” for the oyster to do its job and create a black pearl from the graft.
The oysters can only be grafted once they are mature — a process which takes 2 years. When they are small, they are attached with strings, and strung around bulky ropes, which stretch vertically in the water column. The bulky rope is used to give each oyster adequate space to grow and mature. (These are all the pearl farm “floats” we have to dodge around as we sail around the bay.)
Once the oysters have grown larger, they are placed in nets, and are regularly hauled up for the cleaning of shells, to avoid parasites (larger farms use pressure washers; this family farm used old-fashioned cleaning with a knife).
After two years, the oyster is mature and can be grafted, so that it may begin producing its final prize: the black pearl.