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Tahitian Pearl - Let's Explore!

Updated on March 29, 2017

Tahitian Pearls

For centuries, natural Tahitian pearls have been treasured for their immense beauty, variety of colors, and extreme rarity. Kings, Queens, and nobility alike would all pay handsome fortunes for the glamour and prestige of owning one of natures rare jewels. Once reserved only for royalty, the advent of pearl farming has now made it possible for everyday people to own and enjoy the radiance of cultured Tahitian Pearls.

Although much more available today than they were 50 years ago, Tahitian pearls are still the second rarest pearl on the planet. While diamonds owe their beauty and splendor to cutting, a Tahitian pearl is perfect at birth. As jewels of the sea, Cultured Tahitian pearls are treasured investment that will surely be passed on from generation to generation.

Origin of Tahitian Pearls

Tahitian pearls are produced by the black-lipped mollusk known scientifically as 'Pinctada margaritifera', which are found in the turquoise-colored lagoons and atolls of the South Pacific. Although many people believe Tahitian Pearls solely come from the island of Tahiti, there are no pearl farms that are actually located on the island. Rather, Tahiti is the central trading hub for distributing the Tahitian Pearl. Throughout the South Pacific, Tahitian Pearl farms can be found scattered all over the French Polynesia, but the vast majority of the pearl farms are located in and around the island chains of Tuamotu and Gambier.

Tahitian Pearls
Tahitian Pearls

Tahitian Pearl Color

When you think Tahitian pearl, the first color that comes to mind is black. However, these unique pearls can come in a wide variety of colors ranging from silver to a dark graphite hue. These pearls can even have undertones of different colors such as green, blue and purple.

Natural Tahitian Pearls

A Tahitian Pearl is considered to be natural if it is formed inside of the shell of a black-lipped mollusk without any human intervention. The process occasionally occurs when an oyster of two years or older gets a parasite, grain of sand, or some sort of microscopic material inside of it while it is open and feeding. When the shell closes back up, the foreign particle works its way into the gonad of the mollusk causing the oyster to become irritated. As a defense mechanism, the oyster will generate a pearl sack next to the invading material. The pearl sack will then begin to secrete nacre. Nacre, commonly known as mother of pearl, is used by the oyster to encase the foreign particle in order to subdue the threatening irritation and prevent a potential infection from spreading. With time, the nacre gradually builds layer upon layer around the irritated area to form the pearl. The creation of quality natural Tahitian Pearls is very rare. One average, a person would have to open 15,000 oysters before finding a natural Tahitian Pearl worthy of sale. This is why natural Tahitian pearls are extremely valuable!

Pearl Shapes
Pearl Shapes

Shapes, Sizes and Types of Tahitian Pearls

Tahitian pearls come in a variety of types and shapes. The round pearls are the rarest and the most sought after of Tahitian cultured pearls. Round pearls are almost perfect spheres with a variation in diameter of less than 2%. To determine whether a pearl is round, a professional tester will roll it across a table. If the pearl rolls straight, it is round. If the pearl veers off more than slightly, it is a semi-round. A semi-round pearl also called near round or off round, is a slightly imperfect sphere with a variation in diameter greater than 2% but less than 5%. A ringed or circled pearl is often characterized by regular streaks, rings, or grooves that are perpendicular to an axis of rotation and cover more than a third of the pearl's surface. A semi-baroque pearl is a pearl that exhibits at least one axis of rotation. This means it can only be spun around on a table top. Semi-baroque pearls are often subdivided into four shapes: drop, button, pear, and oval. A baroque pearl is a pearl that is completely asymmetrical in shape; it does not have any axis of rotation.

The size of a Tahitian pearl ranges from small to large. Pearls are measured and classified from millimeter to millimeter. For round and off round pearls, they are measured by the shortest diameter. All pearls in other shapes are measured along two diameters, the longest and second longest. Most Tahitian pearls generally range between 8mm and 14mm. Occasionally some pearls reach 16mm and very rarely an exceptional 18mm.

Tahitian pearls are well known for their vibrant, iridescent, and almost metallic colors, which are unique among saltwater cultured pearls. Though commonly called "black" pearls, Tahitian pearls are actually different degrees of gray, which range from light to dark. In addition to the particular type of gray hue, Tahitian pearls have the unique ability to display a variety of colors at the same time. Depending on the pearl, varying overtones of green, olive green, charcoal, blue, gold, magenta, peacock, and eggplant give each Tahitian pearl a unique look. The most highly prized Tahitian pearls tend to be those of the iridescent peacock and cobalt blue colors, followed by the rainbows, grays, and gold. Even though a cultured Tahitian pearl is slightly different from a natural Tahitian pearl internally, it is impossible to distinguish a difference using the naked eye. Only an x-ray image of the pearl can reveal the difference between the two.

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Pearl Farm
Pearl Farm

Pearl Farming

By the end of the 19th century, overexploited oyster beds nearly caused the black-lipped oyster to go extinct. Mollusk shells were in high demand to be used for buttons, gambling chips, combs, crucifixes, fans, accordion keys, and gun and knife handles. These high demands throughout Europe for the black-lipped mollusk's shell depleted many of the natural reserves. In order to protect the dwindling number of black-lipped mollusk and to meet the high demand for Tahitian pearls, commercial pearl farming came about in the middle of the 1960s. Initially pioneered by the Japanese, pearl farming eliminates some of the chance behind whether or not a black-lipped oyster will produce a pearl.

In order to start this process, two to three year old oysters are subjected to a fast that last for several days. During that time the gonad of the oyster empties and its metabolism slows down; this is done to greatly reduce the chances for rejection of the graft. Using surgical tools, a specially trained grafting technician will then carefully open the oyster and begin the grafting. Grafting is a process that consists of introducing a symmetrically round nucleus, which is created from the shell of a mussel 'cultivated in the Mississippi River' and placing it into the gonad of an oyster, along with a graft. The nuclei used in the process can range in size from 8 to 18 millimeters depending on the size of the pearl trying to be created and the age of the oyster. A graft is a small piece of mantle taken from another oyster of similar type. The type of oyster mantle chosen for the graft greatly influences the color of the pearl being created. Once the oyster is allowed to close it is placed back on a support and suspended in the water. If successful the epithelial cells from the graft will develop around the implanted nucleus to form a pearl sack. After a few weeks the pearl sack will begin to secrete successive thin layers of pearl nacre over the implanted nucleus. Once implanted it takes between one and a half to two years for the black-lipped mollusk to complete the pearl making process. Upon completion Tahitian pearls must be sorted, measured, and graded.

Tahitian pearl farmers generally use four different ratings for surface quality of the pearl. Rather than using a jeweler's loop all surface grading is done with the naked eye. The ratings used for the pearl are Clean to Very Lightly Blemished (A), Lightly Blemished (B), Moderately Blemished (C), and Heavily Blemished (D). Pearl luster is also a factor of surface quality. The luster of a pearl is based on the quality of the light reflections coming from the pearl's surface. Pearls are said to have high or very high luster when the reflections are bright and sharp. When the light reflections are weak, fuzzy, or diffused, the pearls are described as soft or dull. Dull luster pearls are rejected.

Pearl farming is a delicate time consuming process that not all oysters survive, which is a reason why a quality cultured Tahitian pearl holds its value. Ten out of one hundred oysters grafted will immediately die from the operation. In the following year, another ten will die and thirty will reject the nucleus. Of the remaining fifty oysters, only 30% will produce pearls that are of commercial value and only one or two will be perfect gem quality.

Tahitian Pearls

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