The Curse of the Black Pearl, part trois

Oysters that are farmed for their pearls have an odd life. For two years they are pampered like princes to grow big and strong; then bummer dude! a foreign body is inserted in them. They deal with this major inconvenience for the next 18 months, which is how long they take to produce their pearls.

“Some farmers open the oysters early if they are needing cash, but that means their pearls aren’t as nice,” explained Gabriel. “We always give our oysters the full 18 months, so that our pearls have the best chance of developing.”

At Gabriel’s pearl farm, we watched the expert Chinese grafter remove a black pearl with needle nose pliers from an oyster. Wow! The crusty, smelly oyster just gave birth to a miraculous shiny object.

With the aid of a good light, the grafter found a little white ball – the new graft – which was exactly the same size as the pearl he had removed. With extreme care (but without hesitation), he inserted it deep into the oyster — the same exact place that the pearl had been removed from. Suddenly quickening his movements, he removed the pincers that kept the oyster’s lips pried open 1/2 inch, closed the oyster, and moved it into the pile to return to the sea.

“How many times will he do this?” I asked.

Gabriel answered: “The same oyster can be grafted a few times, then once its pearls aren’t very attractive, it is discarded.” He pointed to a huge pile of black bags. “Old oysters,” he shrugged.

“Old oysters” also have a much nicer name: Mother-of-Pearl. They are iridescent, silver shells that twinkle like colored rainbows in light. There were at least two dozen black bags, each weighing 160lbs, full of Mother-of-Pearl. They were placed on the flat bottom boat, to be transported to the supply ship that comes every two weeks. The bags are then sent to Korea, where the Mother-of-Pearl is processed into household goods, like bathroom tiles and buttons.

Or sometimes, it can be made into jewelry, which can be even more beautiful than the pearls themselves.