Black Pearl Aquaculture Photo Journal

This photo-journal is a visual accompaniment to the Black Pearl Aquaculture in French Polynesia Atlas Entry, documenting the world of black pearl aquaculture in locations visited by the S252 SEA Semester’s  Oceans, Climate and Energy program during Spring 2014. The beauty of French Polynesia and the regulatory network of the pearl industry are just as striking as the pearls themselves.  All photos were taken by Kate Enright in March and April of 2014, in Pape’ete, Tahiti and Avatoru, Rangiroa.

Figure 1. Half of a black-lipped pearl oyster, Pinctada Margaritifera. This oyster was cut open for demonstration at the daily tours at Gauguin’s Pearl Farm in Rangiroa.[1] The nacreous lip of the shell is distally dark. Pearl growers observe the color of this lip to estimate the color of the pearl that each oyster will produce.[2]

Figure 2. The distant floats of Gauguin’s Pearl Farm, near the village of Avatoru, Rangiroa. This company farms 1200 acres of the lagoon, and contains 65 miles of line holding oysters. Rangiroa’s lagoon was once full of pearl farms, but after the world-wide economic recession in the late 2000s, Gauguin’s is the only one left in Rangiroa. There were 1000 farms in French Polynesia before 2008, but now there are only 200.[3]

Figure 3.
Pearl oyster floats out of the water in Rangiroa at the island’s research center for aquaculture management. Boats and scuba divers monitor the location of the lines, as well as the success of the grafts and health of the oysters.[4]

Figure 4.
A grafter at Gauguin’s Pearl Farm, Rangiroa. Rangiroa has the only school for training of black pearl grafting in the world. This grafter is from the Tuamotus, but many farms hire skilled grafters who come from China. Gauguin’s prides themselves on hiring local grafters trained at the island’s school. Grafting is the process of opening an oyster and inserting the components needed to produce a pearl: a nucleus and a piece of mantle from another pearl oyster.[5]

Figure 5.
A bag of loose pearls harvested from one farm in French Polynesia and sent to the inspection office in Pape’ete, Tahiti. This is a mandatory step in the processing of black pearls. Many jewelry sellers often buy pearls wholesale in large inspected bags like this, which are then sorted into grades and sizes to save money. The lesser quality pearls in the bag are often ornately carved and sold as beads.[6]

Figure 6.
A worker at one of the x-ray machines used to check each pearl that comes to the regulatory office in Pape’ete. Each pearl is scanned to see if its layer of nacre is thick enough: French Polynesian regulations require a nacre layer of 0.8 mm all the way around the nucleus of the pearl, which is typically a sphere of a different type of imported shell, American Mississippi Mussel.[7]

Figure 7.
A bag of pearls sorted by size and color, from a farm in French Polynesia. This bag has been processed by the regulatory office and is ready to be shipped abroad to a buyer who will resell these pearls. The office workers highlighted Japan, Hong Kong, Canada, and the USA as most common destinations for black pearls.[8]

Figure 8.
A view into the discarded pearl closet in the regulatory office in Pape’ete. The office processes 10 million pearls per year; about 3% of pearls do not comply to thickness regulations or have too many imperfections and thus cannot be sold. This closet contains the 3% of pearls that will be destroyed.[9]

Figure 9.
A table of sorted pearls in the auction house in Pape’ete. Here, buyers meet with auction house representatives to examine and buy sorted pearls to export. Each carton holds pearls that have been sorted by quality, size, shape, color, and luster.[10]

Figure 10.
Stephane Ripa, employee of Gauguin’s Pearl Farm in Rangiroa, looks over  some black pearls in the farm’s boutique. He is demonstrating the ways to check a pearl for imperfections and how to examine different pearl shapes and colors.[11]

Figure 11.
Gauguin’s Pearl Farm in Rangiroa’s representation of the pearl grading and sorting process: their showroom includes loose pearls sorted by size, color, and shape. Above the sorted pearls is a display case of the nacre thickness on Gauguin’s pearls. Although the pearls were farmed on site in Rangiroa, they were sent to Pape’ete for inspection and then returned to the farm for sale.[12]

Figure 12.
This is not a real pearl grafter! This life size model of a grafter at work on a pearl farm is in the Robert Wan Pearl Museum in Pape’ete. This Robert Wan museum/boutique includes dioramas and displays about the pearl farming process and history of pearl aquaculture, including this model of work on a modern pearl farm.[13]

Figure 13.
One of the unique items on display in the Robert Wan pearl shop in Pape’ete, this bikini is made entirely from Tahitian pearls.  The museum incorporates historical and scientific information as well as representations of the fantastic luxury of the pearls.[14]

Figure 14.
The entrance into Tahiti at Faa’a Airport in Pape’ete is lined with large images of Polynesian women wearing black pearls. Pearls are a frequently utilized symbol of the romanticized and mysterious beauty of French Polynesia, and the pearl industry is the second highest source of income for the nation after tourism.[15]

Kate Enright, Wesleyan University
Jerelle Jesse, University of Massachusetts - Dartmouth
Hannah Wagner, Hamilton College

[1]  Ripa, Stephane. March 29, 2014. Gauguin’s Pearl Farm. Avatoru, Rangiroa. Personal Interview.

[2]  Jadhav, U. 2009. Aquaculture Technology and Environment. New Delhi: PHI Learning.

[3]  Ripa, 2014.

[4]  Ripa, 2014.

[5]  Ripa, 2014.

[6]  Moe, Elisabeth. March 24, 2014. Maison de la Perle. Papeete, Tahiti. Personal Interview.

[7]  Pascal, Mitchen. March 24, 2014. Maison de la Perle. Papeete, Tahiti. Personal Interview.

[8]  Pascal, 2014.

[9]  Pascal, 2014.

[10]  Moe, 2014.

[11]  Ripa, 2014.

[12]  Ripa, 2014.

[13]  Anonymous sales representative. March 24, 2014. Robert WAN Tahiti. Papeete, Tahiti. Personal Interview.

[14]  Anonymous sales representative, 2014.

[15]  Secretariat of the Pacific Community Aquaculture Portal (SPC). 2011. Commodities: pearl oyster. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.

How to cite this entry:
Kate Enright, Jerelle Jesse and Hannah Wagner. 2014. “Black Pearl Aquaculture Photo Journal.” Atlas for Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems. Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA. Web. [Date accessed] <html>