Thursday morning a short walk brought us to a pearl farm a little further east along the coast from Bay Apu where we discovered the fascinating process of culturing pearls. Everywhere in FP are shops selling Tahitian Black Pearls; Champon Pearl Farm is one of many across the islands as many lagoons have water suitably high in whatever nutrients are required to grow pearls. It takes three years for the black lipped oyster to grow to the size for implanting with a tiny round stone and some reproductive material from another good coloured oyster. The donor oyster supplies enough tissue for several dozen implanted oysters. Champon import tiny round stones from Mississippi as they do not break as readily as local material when later drilled and employs two specialists to do the grafting, one a family member, the other Japanese (the original source of cultured pearls).
Eighteen months after the grafting process has been done the oyster may be ready to give up its treasure. The goal is a large, smooth round pearl in shades from pale smoky grey to almost black or even blue entirely free from imperfections or blemishes. Most cultured pearls though are anything but perfect, only one or two a year meet the full criteria and are therefore worth thousands of dollars. The rest are graded by size, shape and quality before being made into jewellery or sold as seen. Tempting though these tiny lustrous smoky balls were, the prices for even the most misshapen pearls were too high for Temptress’ budget.
You can understand why the sky high prices when you realise how labour intensive the process is; apart from the two grafting specialists, Champon employs a large team of divers to maintain the net pouches underwater as well as several jewellers to drill and set them on imported French gold and silver work. Once an oyster has been grafted five times ie is over ten years old it is discarded as the quality degrades. Not every oyster produces acceptable pearls either so a constant production of new oysters is required.
In Bahrain where once pearl diving was the main industry before the discovery of oil and before Japanese cultured pearls took over the western jewellery market mid twentieth century, a diver brought many hundred oysters to the surface to find just one natural pearl. So despite the expense many view the culturing of pearls as easier. Sadly it means that pearls have lost much of their rarity and hence value in the intervening period but at least these remote islands have a product that generates some incomes and provides employment.