Once a month, a boat brings provisions to a tiny Pacific atoll called Marutea in the outlying southeastern portion of French Polynesia, better known as Tahiti. This is the only contact with the outside world the island’s 50 or so inhabitants have.
That’s because the island is private property, bought by Hong Kong businessman Robert Wan in 1986 from Frenchman Jean-Claude Brouillet. How did Brouillet come into possession of a South Sea island in the first place?
The Polynesian government sold Marutea to Brouillet in 1974 on the condition that he start an industry there. Brouillet chose pearl farming. Every August since 1976, workers at the island’s lagoon fishery have harvested, on average, some 25,000 wearable natural-color black cultured pearls that when round range in size from 9½ to 13mm, occasionally as high as 16mm.
Although marketers of Marutea’s pearl crop have claimed that the island is responsible for around 70% of the world’s annual black pearl production, specialists in South Sea pearls say its contribution is probably closer to 40%. The lower figure makes sense since Wan, Marutea’s new proprietor, owns at least one other farm as large as the one he bought from Brouillet and is said to hold controlling interests in a few more sprinkled throughout Polynesia.
But the fact that so many jewelers believe in Marutea’s disproportionate importance is a tribute to South Sea pearl dealer Salvador Assael, Assael International Inc., New York. Assael almost singlehandedly popularized Brouillet’s Tahitian blacks in return for the exclusive rights to market them. So identified is he with cultured black pearls that Assael has been called “the one-man De Beers” for the breed.
However, now that the Marutea farm is part of Wan’s black pearl conglomerate Assael may have to share the spotlight as he has had to himself for more than a decade. “I don’t see how one person can handle all that production,” says a fellow South Sea pearl dealer. Another pearl dealer who has long sold Tahitian blacks tells us he has already been approached by Wan to share in future marketing.
Islands of Pearl plenty
The Marutea black pearl farm is the most well-known of the dozens of large and small South Seas black pearl culturing ventures, most of them found in Tahiti. Marutea, like most island pearl farm operations, is remote, located 1,000 miles away from Papeete, the capital of Tahiti. Here, Marutea’s black beauties are flown—a seven-hour trip by air—after harvesting and grading to be handed over to their American and European distributors.
With at least 50% of total cultured black pearl production coming from Wan-owned or Wan-controlled farms, the market has little to fear in the way of turbulence. The only threats are from nature. But except for hurricanes and such, things are just as you’d expect them in the South Seas: smooth and tranquil.
Nevertheless, there are those who wish pearl farming on Marutea and all other Polynesian islands would take on more of the hustle and bustle it has in Japan. That’s not likely, though, for a number of reasons.
Longer shelf life
Black pearls are produced by a black-lipped oyster found throughout Micronesia (a South Sea island complex that includes French Polynesia). As with the more plentiful Japanese variety, Tahitian pearl culturing consists of inserting mantle tissue from a sister oyster plus a bead nucleus made entirely of processed Mississippi River clamshell, into the oyster, then waiting until the oyster covers it with a substantial layer of secretion called nacre.
Although culturing techniques are the same, philosophies of pearl growing are different in Japan and Tahiti. To boost pearl production, Japanese often implant oysters with two or more nuclei. Indeed, if you are buying Japanese cultured pearls that are 6mm or less in size, you should assume they came from multiple dwelling pearl oysters.
In Polynesia, however, pearl farmers stick doggedly to a one-pearl-per-oyster policy, even though the South Sea oyster used is much larger than its Japanese counterpart. This is the way it’s always been there and, say producers, is meant to stay. One reason for the single nucleus policy is that Tahiti is famous for large pearls. Multiple implantations would increase production—but at the expense of greater sizes.
Tahitian pearl growers also depart from the Japanese example. As far as in recent years on shorter and shorter growing times. phasis in we know, every oyster harvested has spent at least two years in the water. But by taking growing times to such lengths, Tahitian pearl farmers sacrifice a good many round pearls. Remember, the longer a pearl sits in an oyster, the greater its chances of shifting position and growing unevenly. Hence the overwhelming majority of Tahitian pearls are baroque. In fact, Assael confesses, production of round pearls on Marutea is only 33%, vastly below the percentage of Japan. Nevertheless, Assael isn’t complaining. He notes that baroque shapes are very popular in Europe. And since prices paid for top-quality large round black pearls in graduated strands can reach $35,000 wholesale, he feels more than compensated for ultra-limited round harvests.
In any case, the emphasis on quality over quantity throughout Polynesia has been a big selling point. For example, each year, usually between April and June, Japanese technicians on Marutea implant some 60,000 oysters. Two, sometimes three years later, they are harvested generally, says Assael with at least a 40% success rate.
Their long incubation period results in a layer of nacre thicker than most Japanese pearls. Many Japanese pearls sold abroad have a nacre thickness well under 1mm due to their shorter time in the sea. Assael’s pearls on the other hand, generally boast a minimum nacre thickness of 2mm.
As with white pearls, there are definite standards for excellence in black pearls. Foremost is color, which runs from light gray to dark gray, often with bluish, peacock-green and eggplant-green overtones. At present, high-luster peacock greens and some gun-metal grays are the most coveted.
Second in importance is cleanliness, for which dealers use a grading system that starts at A, spotless, moves to F, then down to SP1, SP2 and SP3 (to indicate degrees of spotting). Luster, or surface shine, is more subjective. But the best black pearls have a high-polish surface, reminiscent of a ball bearing. Last, but not least, comes shape, ranked in desirability as follows: round, pear, semi-round, drop, button, baroque and rejection. Assael says he has a very small percentage of rejection pearls.
Please note: this profile was originally published in 1988 in Modern Jeweler’s ‘Gem Profiles: The First 60’, written by David Federman with photographs by Tino Hammid.
The Tahitian black pearl shown in the header image courtesy of Morningstar Pearls, Santa Monica, Calif.