The Polynesian Black Pearl Industry

Photo 1: Black Pearls by Heidi Hirsh

Oysters have been an important economic resource in Polynesia since the early nineteenth century. Mother of pearl was a highly sought resource in the China trade, and today the lustrous black pearl is the second largest revenue producer and the largest export in French Polynesia. Careful management of the oyster (Pinctada margaritifera) stock and the environment in which it is raised, as well as a measured response to changing economic factors are necessary to maintain a sustainable industry.

Depletion of oyster stocks in the late nineteenth century devastated the mother-of-pearl industry and much debate on the collection methods ensued. With the development of pearl aquaculture in the 1960s, the conservation aspect of the problem was solved, but this has resulted in an overproduction of pearls, which has caused problems with quality and price. The main issue the black pearl industry in Polynesia faces today is being able to develop sustainable business practices that help the industry compete in the global economy.

Black-lipped oysters were the first commercial commodity in French Polynesia to be exploited for commercial purposes. [1]  Before the arrival of Europeans and Americans to the islands, mother of pearl was very important in the culture of French Polynesia because they used it for many different purposes such as ornaments and fish hooks. The elusive oyster pearl was highly regarded by the people and reserved for the elite. Early mythic traditions say that the Polynesian God of war, Oro, arrived on Earth and delivered a black pearl to a Bora Bora princess, and priests subsequently wore the black pearls when conducting funeral ceremonies for important chiefs. [2]  In the early nineteenth century, American ships began arriving in Polynesia for mother of pearl to trade in China. [3]  Its iridescence and strength made it an attractive material for inlay and ornaments. [4]  The demand for mother of pearl for buttons and fishing lures brought new economic activity into the region. In the 1950s and 60s, the increased use of plastics drastically decreased the number of products that used mother of pearl. This, along with a depletion of oysters in the lagoons, led to a shift in the oyster industry. [5] 

The French realized the revenue potential of mother of pearl and began to exploit the resource for their own economic interests.This pursuit was not easily accepted by the inhabitants of the islands because Polynesian custom had always allowed residents to use the waterways for their personal use and economic growth. The French Civil Code, passed in 1866, declared all waterways to be under the control of the French government, taking away a freedom from the people of the islands. [6] 

The French introduced diving machines in 1875 to help further exploit the stock. Local people were opposed to the diving machines because they allowed for even more depletion of pearls from the lagoons and eliminated the need for pearl divers, who made a living by diving into the lagoons to retrieve oysters. French officials claimed that the machines could be used in inaccessible and dangerous lagoons that a diver could not access, such as cold weather and deeper water. They even claimed they cleaned the bottom of lagoons to encourage the growth of oysters. In 1892 the first ban of diving machines was enacted due to growing political pressure on the island, but in 1902 the ban was repealed. [7] 

Several tragic events happened in the beginning of the twentieth century that led to more changes to the diving machine laws. Many people called for the modernization of the industry with increased use of diving machines after many expert pearl divers were killed in 1903 during a hurricane. Despite this, in 1906, the ban of diving machines was enacted once again as there was still pressure from the islanders who were concerned about the large number of oysters being removed from the lagoons, further depleting the stock. In 1920, the ban was lifted to offset costs associated with World War I, though with a compromise to the pearl divers: machine diving was only permitted in dangerous or inaccessible lagoons. By 1932 a majority of the lagoons were open to divers since the low demand for mother of pearl did not justify the high yield of the machine divers. By the 1960s the lagoon oyster stocks were nearly depleted. [8]

A concern over the declining stock of oysters was recognized as early as 1868 and it resulted in the first regulations of the oyster industry. [9]  The lagoon on Anaa was closed for three years due to over exploitation, and this same restriction was later enacted on five other atolls. [10]  The penalty for oyster diving was very small and did not effectively stop divers. [11]  In 1874 at the Tuamotuan lagoons, new regulations were put in place and lagoons were divided into three categories, where diving was prohibited, restricted, or freely allowed; they were reassessed and reclassified annually based on the stock available. [12] 

Oyster aquaculture was developed in 1905 by Kichimatsu Mikimoto in Japan. [13]  To test the effectiveness of the method, an experimental farm was set up on the Hikuem atoll in the Tuamotus in 1963, which led to the first commercial farm being established in Manihi. It took a couple of years for the process to become popular in French Polynesia, as entrepreneurs were just beginning to learn the difficult process. In the 1980s the industry took off and since then it has been an important industry to French Polynesia. [14]  Aquaculture, in general, has been very important in Polynesia and pearl farming exemplifies its success. [15] 

The cultivation of pearls is a long, complex process, spanning four to five years, and requires training and skill to produce a quality product. In the past, Japanese graft technicians composed a majority of the specialists in the industry because of the training they were able to receive in Japan. An effort has been made to help the people of Polynesia become more competitive for graft technician jobs. In 1986 the only pearl school in Polynesia, located on the atoll of Rangiroa, was created and has since trained many students from the region to become graft technicians. During a visit to the school in February 2011, four of seven students present were from Tahiti, one from Hawaii, and two from Rangiroa; they ranged in age from eighteen to thirty-one years old. There is a competitive admissions process. After two years of study, students are granted a certificate and receive an apprenticeship at a pearl farm chosen by the school. [16] 

The first step in pearl cultivation is the collection of swimming oyster larvae by hanging spat collectors, made of synthetic fibers, in the lagoons about seven meters below the surface. The Tuamotu/Gambier atolls have optimal conditions for the larvae to grow and flourish, as the lagoons protect them from what otherwise would be rough ocean seas. [17]  Producers do not use the old collection method of diving for oysters (the main reason for oyster depletion in the mother of pearl industry) because they catch and grow their larvae. After three years, when about ten-to-twelve inches in size, the oysters are ready for their first operation.

Several preparatory steps are completed before commencing the graft operation. Marine growth on the shells is cut off with a machete and a one-centimeter plastic wedge is inserted into the lip of the oyster, which relaxes the shell and makes it easier for the technicians to open. The most difficult and crucial step in developing a cultured pearl is the grafting process. The average time of the operation for each oyster is forty seconds; the maximum amount of time they can be out of the water is two hours and a technician grafts hundreds of oysters. A large pearl farm, such as Gauguin’s Pearls in Rangiroa, performs about 450 operations each day. 

Photo 2: Graft operation of a pearl by David Siu [picture 0894]

The main elements of the operation are the nucleus and the graft. The nucleus is a small, round bead made from freshwater oyster shells originating in the Mississippi River. (The nucleus needs to be imported from the United States because the shells from Polynesia are not thick enough to create the nucleus.) The freshwater shells are shipped from the United States to Japan, where the shell is cut into strips and then subsequently formed into round beads, and sent to Polynesia.  The graft is a piece of the mantle from a young, sacrificed oyster called the graft giver, which contain the pigments that provide the pearls with their color. After inspecting the appendix of the oyster to ensure it is an adequate size for operation, a turning incision of 2.5 centimeters is made and the nucleus and graft are inserted inside and placed in contact. The graft, which is essentially the DNA of the pearl, should grow around the nucleus and produce a pearl in about two years.

Photo 3: Nucleus Creation [picture 0934]

After the operation, the oyster is placed in the pouch of a "kangaroo net" and temporarily stored in a saltwater tank for 40 days. The operation will be considered a success if the oyster has not rejected the nucleus. At that point the oyster shells have holes drilled into them to be hung on a rope and are then transported to the lagoon, where they will stay for a couple of years. These need to be protected by plastic nets from natural predators such as turtles, stingrays, octopuses, eels, trigger fish and many more.

Photo 4: Example of kangaroo net from Gauguin’s Pearl Farm [picture 0565]

Two years after the operation is the harvest day. The ideal pearl will be as round as possible, have a good color, nice luster, and be quite flawless. Oysters that produce such pearls are immediately re-seeded to create a second generation of pearl with a larger nucleus, and sometimes even a third generation. A graft is no longer required because the DNA from the previous graft is still available in the oyster. Since the nucleus gets larger at each generation, a larger pearl will be produced each time and the last pearl could be as large as 20 mm.

The average number of seeded oysters that create a marketable pearl is about 35%, and about 2% of those have the characteristics to be considered a top grade pearl. At the end of its usage for pearls, the oyster’s shell can still be used for mother of pearl, and some companies still use the material to make buttons and other products.[18]

The scope of the pearl industry encompasses not only French Polynesia but also Japan, China, Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Myanmar. The four main pearl oyster types are those which produce White South Sea pearls (Pinctada maxima), akoya pearls (Pinctada fucata), freshwater pearls (freshwater mussels), and black pearls. The black pearl is exclusively produced in French Polynesia, mainly in the Tuamotus and Gambier Archipelagos, and the Cook Islands. Although the oyster that produces the black pearl can be found in many other parts of the world, these locations are the only places that cultivate them for commercial purposes. In 2004 it was estimated that black pearls contributed to 19% of total pearl sales worldwide.[19]

The industry started to blossom in Polynesia around 1980, and by 1999 black pearl exports had increased exponentially.[20] Japan, the largest recipient of the pearls, receiving 96% of the exports in 1996, matched the large quantities of pearls acquired based on size and quality and in due course exported them abroad, mainly to the United States, establishing a de facto monopoly.[21] The French Polynesian government realized that having the Japanese as middle men kept prices higher to consumers, and by 1998 they reduced the number of pearls exported to Japan to 68%.[22] The other main countries importing pearls are Hong Kong, France, and Switzerland.[23]

As of 2010, the black pearl is the second largest revenue producer in Polynesia next to the tourism industry, and is their most exported product.[24] But the most recent numbers clearly portray problems in the pearl industry. The 2010 price-per-gram of pearls is only 450 CFP which is down 10% from 2009 numbers and about 70% since the recent peak in 2006. Along with the global recession, the price per gram dropped 61.5% from 2008 to 2009. Gauguin’s Pearls was recently offering 30% discounts on all pearls because of the current state of the economy. In 2010 the revenue derived from pearls increased despite the falling pearl prices, which shows that the number of pearls being exported has also increased; the price decrease is a result of overproduction and the global recession. The kilograms exported increased 8% from 2009 numbers.[25]

Producers are making a lot more pearls, as more and more businesses attempt to enter the established pearl industry, and without any regulation on production there is no limiting the amount of pearls that are entering the market. The larger pearl farms would support having the industry organized more like in Western Australian, where producers get together and decide the output and price for the year in order to stabilize prices and curb overproduction. This has faced resistance because it would be more beneficial to the larger pearl farms rather than the smaller ones.[26]

Another problem that is affecting the price of the black pearl is the quality of the pearls and, unlike overproduction, there has been some government regulation put in place to help prevent lower quality pearls from entering the market at a lower price. All harvests now have to go directly from the lagoon to Papeete to be inspected and pass controls, including determining if the layer of mother-of-pearl nacre around the nucleus is thick enough; if they fail they are destroyed on the spot. Also, all pearls passing inspection come with documentation that proves they have met specific quality standards so the consumer knows they are receiving a high-quality product.[27] In December 2009, the French Polynesia Assembly reinstated the tax on pearl exports, hoping it will reduce the number of poor-quality pearls that are exported.[28] Despite these regulations, lack of enforcement makes it difficult to enforce.

Despite pearl cultivation solving the problem of oyster overexploitation, there are still many other ecological problems that have come with cultivation and challenge sustainability of the industry. Oyster mortality rates have been a main issue because farms are trying to cultivate too many oysters, which leads to the spread of disease due to overcrowding in the lagoons. Specific lagoons are more vulnerable to disease than others, so in 1985 inter-island mollusk movement was prohibited so disease would not spread from one lagoon to another.[29] A recent trend in up-and-coming companies is producing pearls in an ecologically friendly environment. Kamoka Pearl Farms, located on the Ahe atoll, are pioneers in this industry. They rotate the oyster strands in the lagoon constantly so fish can clean the area, because pearl cultivation creates harmful anemones, which can destroy the outside of pearl shells, but that the fish will eat.[30]

The pearl industry has created an influx of jobs to the economy. In 2000, it was estimated that 4000 people had a job in pearl cultivation. These jobs are popular among residents because they can relate back to their heritage, as shell diving and working outdoors have always been part of their culture. The large companies make up a large percentage of people that are employed in the industry, but non-salaried family members reduces the costs of family operations, which helps support those family companies.[31]  Recently, the global recession has hurt the jobs in the industry. Gauguin’s Pearls had to cut its employee base from 60 people to 20, and claims that this has happened across the industry.

Similar to any industry in the world, sustainable business practices are necessary in order to ensure that the resources and environments necessary to continue the production of the pearl oysters exists for many generations to come. This is especially a concern in Polynesia, where disruption of the environment can lead to catastrophic changes. In order to keep the industry afloat and give many residents the opportunity to participate in creating the beautiful black pearl, further education and business guidelines need to be put together. This will help the industry to come out of its current slump and continue to supply the world with a magnificent product.

Nicholas Morrow, Northeastern University



[1]  Moshe Rapaport, “Oysterlust: Islanders, Entrepreneurs, and Colonial Policy over Tuamotu Lagoons,” The Journal of Pacific History 30 (1995): 39-52.

[2]  David Stanley, “Black Pearls of French Polynesia and the Cook Islands,” The Free Library, Tok Blong Pacifik, 22 Sept. 2003. Web. 9 Jan. 2011.

[3]  Mary Malloy, “American Commercial Expansion to the Pacific,” Lecture at Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA, February 2011.  

[4]  P Cabral, “Problems and Perspectives of the Pearl Oyster Aquaculture in French Polynesia,” Advances in Tropical Aquacultures:57-66.

[5]  Cabral 58.

[6]  Rapaport, 42.

[7]  Rapaport, 47-48.

[8]  Rapaport, 47-48.

[9]  Rapaport, 41.

[10]  Rapaport, 40.

[11]  Rapaport, 41.

[12]  Rapaport, 42.

[13]  “The Man, The Expert,” Robert Wan, 25 Jan. 2011 <>.

[14]  Stanley

[15]  Frank R. Thomas, “Taming the Lagoon: Aquaculture Development and the Future of Customary Marine Tenure in Kiribati, Central Pacific,” Geografiska Annaler, Series B Human Geography (2003): 243, JSTOR, 08 January 2011.

[16]  Visit to the School, 14 Feb. 2011.

[17]  Paul C. Southgate, “Overview of the Cultured Marine Pearl Industry,” Pearl Oyster Health Management: a Manual: 10.

[18]  Visit to Gauguin’s Pearl Farm, 14 Feb. 2011.

[19]  Southgate, 7-10.

[20]  Bernard Poirine and C.A. Tisdell, “Socio-economics of Pearl Culture: Industry Changes and Comparisons Focusing on Australia and French Polynesia,” Secretariat of the Pacific Community, World Aquaculture (June 2000).

[21]  Jacques Bonvallot, Atlas De La Polynesie Francaise (Paris: Orstom, 1993) 89.

[22]  Poirine and Tisdell.

[23]  Stanley

[24]  Statistical Institute of French Polynesia. Web. 9 Jan 2011 <>.

[25]  Statisistical Institute of French Polynesia.

[26]  Visit to Gauguin’s Pearl Farm.

[27]  Visit to Gauguin’s Pearl Farm.

[28]  "French Polynesia Assembly Votes Tax on Pearl Exports and "cash for Clunkers" Measures," (23 Oct. 2009) 9 Jan. 2011.

[29]  Bonvallet, 90.

[30]  Stanley

[31]  Poirine and Tisdell



Bonvallot, Jacques. "Pearl Culture and Pearl-Shell Farming."Atlas De LaPolynesie Francaise. Paris:Orstom1993. 89-90.

Cabral, P. "Problems and Perspectives of the Pearl Oyster Aquaculture in FrenchPolynesi."Advances in Tropical Aquacultures.57-66.Web. 9 Jan. 2011.

"French Polynesia Assembly Votes Tax on Pearl Exports and "cash for Clunkers" Measures." 23 Oct. 2009. Web. 9 Jan. 2011.

Malloy, Mary. “American Commercial Expansion to the Pacific.” Lecture at Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA, 19 Jan. 2011.

Poirine, Bernard. "The Economy of French Polynesia: Past, Present and Future." Pacific Economic Bulletin.Vol. 25. Australian National University, 2010. 24-34.

Rapaport, Moshe. "Oysterlust: Islanders, Entrepreneurs, and Colonial Policy over Tuamotu Lagoons."The Journal of Pacific History30 (1995): 39-52. 

Southgate, Paul C. "Overview of the Cultured Marine Pearl Industry." Pearl Oyster Health Management: a Manual. Web. 9 Jan. 2011.

Stanley, David. "Black Pearls of French Polynesia and the Cook Islands." The Free Library. Tok Blong Pacifik, 22 Sept. 2003. Web. 9 Jan. 2011.

Statistical Institute of French Polynesia. Web. 9 Jan. 2011. <>.

"The Man, The Expert." Robert Wan. Web. 25 Jan. 2011. <>.

Thomas, Frank R. "'Taming the Lagoon': Aquaculture Development and the Future of Customary Marine Tenure in Kiribati, Central Pacific." Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography. Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geography, 2003.243-52. 

Tisdell, C. A., and Bernard Poirine. "Socio-economics of Pearl Culture: Industry Changes and Comparisons Focusing on Australia and French Polynesia." Secretariat of the Pacific Community. World Aquaculture, June 2000.