“Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May” sounds innocuous and somewhat sweet. It’s a stern-ish admonition by the17th British poet Robert Herrick in his poem To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time, in which he warns gals not to be too picky as time’s a-wasting, and they won’t be pretty forever. To me, this Herrick fellow sounds like a jilted suitor angry over his being rejected and trying to put a spin on why the girl said, “No thanks, buddy.” Often, beautiful pearls of poetry, music, and prose result from cruel rejection.

Polynesian woman displaying nets with oyster shells

Rejecting a hanger-on can take many forms, but in Tahiti, a creation of a symmetrical objet d’art is formed because a mollusk wants no part of the alien thing that has been slipped into its gonad by a grafter. This foreign ball delicately placed inside the pocket of the oyster by prying the black-lipped shell slightly open is anathema to the unwilling mollusk. She wishes to expel it. Half the time, she succeeds.  But, sometimes this nucleus inserted into her—this thing which is part of a shell from the Mississippi River— is not spat out but instead surrounded repeatedly in concentric circles with her mother-of–pearl coating (nacre) as she tries to encompass this foreign object. Because a sliver of the lining from another black- lipped oyster (pinctada margaritifera) has been shoved in along with the nucleus, the color of the pearl formed is blackish. The longer the mollusk tries to nullify this unwanted piece, the more beautiful becomes the pearl growing inside her. If a pearl farmer waits five years, he’ll have a more excellent product than if he harvests his pearl too early. So, he places these tampered-with oysters in nets to protect them from predators, like turtles, who want to eat the shell’s innards, and then the pearl farmer checks them monthly and cleans off algae forming on them and the nets. Patience is a virtue in black pearl cultivation.

Some farmers take short cuts; they don’t allow their pearls enough time to become a perfectly round, lustrous, large gem, and some like the Japanese will often glue a foreign body, such as a plastic bead onto the inside shell of the oyster, something she can’t reject.  A pearl will grow as the animal endeavors to rid herself of the foreign invader. Unfortunately, the pearl that grows from this method will be flat on one side when the farmer scrapes it off. He’ll sell those for earrings. The Tahitian pearl farmers called this practice cruel.

The mollusks, with the Mississippi Delta nucleus introduced, can reproduce three times.

Since 1972, black pearls have been cultured using this process of placing a section of another black rimmed Tahitian oyster into the gonad pocket along with the nucleus, and this surgical operation is mostly done by Japanese grafters who come to Tahiti to perform it.  Of course, that sliver piece has been taken from an oyster, who has been sacrificed to supply about 40 other recipient oysters with small fragments of its black lipped rim. The color of the pearl developing depends on the color of that piece sliced from the sacrificed oyster.

There exist natural pearls called Keshi pearls which have no nucleus; they are composed entirely of nacre. Their shapes vary.  The cultured pearls are superior in looks. They are rated on six criteria: layer thickness, size, shape, surface imperfections, refraction of light (luster), and color. The best ones are round or droplet -like, called Baroque.

Because crooks exist everywhere, buyer beware! Ensure that a certificate by BEEP accompanies your purchase. A customer doesn’t want to wind up with a strand of plastic, painted pearls!

Didier Sibani, a Frenchman who made Tahiti his home in 1969, is a pioneer in the cultured pearl industry. Chirac awarded him the Legion of Honor for his contribution to the industry. His farm is on a small island, Tahona, and his tip to us, listening to his speech, was: “Pick an island without mountains if you want to grow pearls.”  The Tahitian Islands have many black pearl farms. Stores selling pearls abound. Sibani’s shop is located on Bora Bora.

Choosing among visiting pineapple plantations, vanilla bean farms, pareo- making studios, coconut oil/monoi operations, and fire-eating shows, I’d have to say I enjoyed the black pearl growers’ spiels the most. The only activity that, maybe, tied it holding my interest during my week of “Bali Hi” experiences was swimming with sting rays! Ah, but, that’s another story.

Pareo making