MANIHI, French Polynesia — With a quick twist on a short wooden wedge, Tahitian pearl farmer Henri Tauraa pried open the shells of a hapless oyster, revealing a lustrous black pearl nestled on the half shell. "La couleur, c'est belle," he whispered, scrutinizing the marble-size pearl under the brilliant South Pacific sun. Henri grinned and dropped the dusky jewel into my hand. Scooping up three other pearls he'd collected just minutes before, I cradled this quartet of natural Polynesian gems in my palm and admired their raw elegance.
A relative newcomer to the world jewelry market, French Polynesia first cultivated black pearls in the 1960s. Today it exports more than 200,000 of these iridescent gems a year. Their name comes from the distinctive black-lipped oyster that produces them, not from the pearl itself; the term "black pearls" is actually a misnomer because they come in green, magenta, blue, silver-black, green-black and even white. Individual pearls can cost $150 to several thousand dollars. And leading French Polynesia's cultivation of the gems is the coral atoll of Manihi, where more than 60 pearl farms operate within its tropical lagoon.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 28, 1999 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 2 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
French Polynesia--Due to an editing error in a story about Manihi atoll ("Blue Lagoon, Black Pearls," March 21), the Guidebook misidentified two airlines serving Tahiti. Air Tahiti Nui is the long-distance carrier, flying from L.A. to Papeete. Air Tahiti is the local airline that flies to Manihi. In addition, Air France offers flights from LAX to Tahiti.
Manihi is about 300 miles northeast of Tahiti in the Tuamotu Islands, which are part of French Polynesia. Although there are daily Air Tahiti Nui flights to Manihi, the place is almost unknown outside French Polynesia. But as an avid collector of Tahitian black pearls, I had long wanted to visit the atoll to learn more about how they are produced. So when I visited French Polynesia a year and a half ago, I made sure to set aside some time in Manihi.
The 50-minute flight from Papeete, Tahiti, to Manihi passed over several Tuamotu atolls, each appearing as an aqua-colored ring against the deep blue Pacific Ocean. I was the lone American on the flight--about half the passengers were French and Italian tourists, and the rest were locals. As we neared Manihi atoll I saw its unusual shape--an oblong necklace of land interspersed with islets (called motus) that collectively encircle an 18-mile-long by 5-mile-wide lagoon. The motus were thick with coconut palms and pandanus trees and were surrounded by turquoise waters. And within the lagoon, shacks stood on coral heads to serve as makeshift work areas for pearl farms. Manihi's economy once relied on fishing and coconut harvesting, but now black pearls have become the lifeblood of the atoll.
Most of the 500 local inhabitants live in the village of Turipaoa, on a separate motu about 10 minutes by boat from the crushed-coral airstrip and single resort on the main island. Most visitors stay at the luxury Manihi Pearl Beach Resort--as I did later in my stay. But to save some money and because I was interested in black pearls, I'd arranged, with the help of some friends, to spend a couple of days at a nearby pearl farm.
Waiting for me at the airport was Etienne Tuaiva, a diver at one of the largest pearl producers in Manihi, La Compagnie Perliere des Tuamotu (CPDT). On his boat we dodged coral heads in Manihi's lagoon and stopped at a village for supplies and to pick up Henri, CPDT's pearl farm manager. In 15 minutes we arrived at the pearl farm on motu Takovea.
As I climbed onto a wooden jetty, I saw hanging from scaffolding in the shallow lagoon hundreds of small oysters ready for pearl cultivation. Nearby a submerged wire mesh cage held saucer-size oysters containing, Henri hoped, cultured Tahitian black pearls. A kaleidoscope of fish swam leisurely below, awaiting a meal of discarded oysters from the farm.
Henri, Etienne and I communicated with bits of French, Spanish and hand gestures. They were both native Tahitians who spent half of each month working at the pearl farm. That night Henri offered me a hut to sleep in, with a simple bed frame and a piece of foam for a mattress. For the next two days I learned about pearl farming by watching Henry and Etienne do their jobs.
Black pearl farms are set up in protected lagoons where the atoll's reefs slow the strong ocean waves, while still allowing currents to carry enough nutrients to feed the oysters. It takes about two to three years for a Pinctada margaritifera oyster to grow large enough for the grafting process to begin. Then the fleshy mantle of a healthy oyster is removed and cut into dozens of small squares. Each of these squares is inserted into a different oyster along with a mussel shell bead, and after the oysters are returned to the lagoon they begin to grow protective layers over these foreign bodies, which can become a pearl.