The Kamoka Pearl Farm

While we were moored behind “Sasha’s Chateau” in Ahe, we’d see Kamoka’s aluminum powerboat filled with black cages approaching twice a day.

Aboard the boat was Josh and his crew from the Pearl Farm, freediving 20ft to pull up cultivated oysters from their farm’s submerged network of lines. The precious oysters live underwater, filter feeding in the lagoon, and are protected by cages from the sharp teeth of Trigger Fish and other oyster-munching critters like turtles and rays.

The crew take the cages back to the farm in the morning to be cleaned by the lagoon’s fish then bring them back to their underwater home in the afternoon; somewhere underneath the maze of colorful buoys, a sight every sailor is familiar with (and has learnt to dodge) in the Tuamotus archipelago.

Kamoka’s pearls are known for their exceptional quality. Here’s (one of) the secret sauces of how the farm makes such beautiful pearls.

The crew opens the still-wet oyster cages at the farm. They drop them back into the water at the farm’s holding platform, this time unprotected, oozing with a plethora of different marine organisms. Hundreds of fish jump on this yummy buffet, chomping away at the biofouling living atop the oyster shell, without actually damaging the shells (if there are any Trigger Fish in the area, they must be promptly ushered away with spearguns!).

The fish actually clean the oyster shells, which is essential for keeping them healthy and free of parasites and free loaders. This method seems like a no-brainer, but it’s actually more labor intensive; the oysters must be moved from the cages to the fish-cleaning station every two months. In contrast, other pearl farms will leave their oysters underwater longer periods of time, accumulating competing marine organisms and then actually Pressure Wash the oysters to clean them (instead of letting fish chomp on them).

Besides Kamoka’s approach being much gentler on the oysters, resulting in better oyster health (and as a result, pearl quality) another benefactor of this approach is the ecosystem. The renewable food source of the life growing atop oyster shells nourishes a large fish population and helps keep the lagoon clean and healthy (free of pressure-washed debris, which is not easily consumable by fish and causes silt and overdose of certain nutrients).

This process is repeated over about a year’s time while the oysters grow. That means lots of freediving and opening of cages! Once the oysters are mature enough, they are sent to the Grafting table, where a specialist grafter (such as our dear friend Josh) will insert a 6-8mm shell sphere inside the oyster, called the Nucleus. A piece of mantle tissue (which comes another oyster shell, chosen for its excellent color properties) is cut with precision and placed carefully next to the nucleus. The mantle is the organ in the oyster that secretes the shell. At that point, the Grafted oysters are returned to the water, and are cared for every two months. Within a year or 18 months, the grafted oysters are finally harvested, and if all went well, the nucleus has been coated by the healthy oyster with its mother-of-pearl substrate, turning it into a fully fledged pearl.

Examples of successful numbers are:
— 50% of the grafted oysters yield a pearl
— 25% of those pearls are close to perfectly round
Non-perfect pearls also have some market value.

Seeing the entire process from oyster farming to pearl harvesting, start to finish, is very eye-opening! We really appreciate the massive effort that it takes along with the beautiful integration between farm and the ecosystem. It is striking and magical that this slimy weird oyster is actually creating a remarkable pearl — which shines in the most extraordinary hues and colors.

It gives us an entirely new perspective on the majestic Tahitian black pearl: why they are so coveted and expensive. In particular, we’re amazed by the labor-of-love that Kamoka puts into their oysters to make the best pearl possible, while at the same time protecting the ocean.

(Note that other types of pearls are a lot easier to cultivate, but that’s another story).

Learn more about Kamoka Pearl’s approach to sustainable oyster farming here: Http://kamokapearls.com/pages/pearl-farming

Purchase Kamoka pearls and jewelry direct from http://www.kamokapearls.com. You’ll be supporting a wonderful family business and a sustainable approach to pearl farming here in Tuamotus!

Photos:
— the Cleaning Station at the farm, with the Cleaner Fish doing their work — Josh at the Grafting Table
— oysters with clips separated the shell slightly, ready for grafting — harvested pearls being sorted by size, color, and shape.
— view of Kamoka farm and Aldebaran crew (this is actually from our first visit, May 2018)

5 thoughts on “The Kamoka Pearl Farm

  1. Super cool!

    What’s labor of love! I understand this is so uniquely Polynesian. What makes these black?

    Bisous pour tous!

    • Hi Diyana,
      The species of oyster, the Pinctada margaritifera or black-lip pearl oyster accounts for the generally darker color of our pearls. We do also produce white pearls though as well as golds and blues and pinks and greens and just about every other color of the rainbow. Thanks for asking!
      -Josh

  2. The millennial luxury of pearls, once naturally gathered and serendipitously discovered, belies the very hard work of grafting, cultivation, sorting, selling

    Once the pearls have been released from the oysters, can they be regrafted and returned to produce again?

    If so, how many cycles are possible, how many years?
    If not, what happens to the oyster meat- used for food, fertilizer, or?

    • Hi Bob!
      When we harvest the pearls we replace the pearl with a new nucleus that will bring a much larger pearl of a similar color the following year. We have produced as many as five consecutive pearls from the same oyster!
      For the oysters that aren’t suitable for re-grafting (low grade pearls) the meat is recovered and eaten. Also, the shells are sold mostly to Asia for the fabrication of buttons. Some of the thicker ones are made into pearl nuclei that we incorporate into our work. This recycling/repurposing has the happy end result of increased pearl quality as the nucleus material is native to the shells we graft. Truly a win/win!
      As for the scrapings that are less palatable than the scallop of the oysters, we feed it to our chickens that lay eggs for us every day.
      Cheers,
      Josh

  3. Josh,

    So interesting, thanks for your reply.

    With recycling-repurposing helping to extend the quality of current generation pearls into the next generation’s, would up to five consecutive pearls therefore have a tendency to become better and better? Does the new nucleus come from the very same oyster into which it is regrafted, or is the improvement in quality this practice provides come strictly from the genetic material of the general line of oysters you use?

    I’m sure what there is to this arcane craft-cultivation would fill a pearl oyster cultivation encylopedia.
    Congratulations for everything you’ve achieved. Wishing you many happy oystering recyclings ahead!

    Bob

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