- The Washington Times - Friday, June 18, 2004

As the Aranui unloads cargo on Takapoto, one of the 76 Tuamotu atolls, we ride whaleboats over the aquamarine

seas and through a plunging white surf, then hike through a coconut plantation to a black pearl farm.

Takapoto has 600 residents, white-sand beaches, a pervading sense of peace, and a small black pearl industry. We pass piles of drying coconuts, simple houses with neat yards and blue lagoons glimpsed occasionally through waving coconut palms and arrive at a farm where we learn the history of black pearls.

Once considered luminous dewdrops from the night sky, black pearls are among the South Seas’ treasures, found only in the Tuamotus, which include French Polynesia and the Gambier Islands. In earlier days, Polynesians dove for giant iridescent, black-lipped oysters in these lagoons but rarely brought up black pearls. However, their nacre was used for making buttons.

In 1963, the industry adopted Japanese methods of culturing pearls. Today plastic garlands are suspended from bamboo rafts, offering anchorages for pinhead-size oyster larvae. Within months, the strings fill with the larvae, by then the size of 50-cent pieces.

Then they grow in hanging baskets for 18 months before they are retrieved and pried open so tiny spheres of Mississippi River mussel shells can be implanted in the mantle tissue. This tissue forms a sac where nacre — the pearlescent substance that coats the mussel and also is known as mother-of-pearl — is produced. Next, the oysters are returned to the lagoon to be harvested in three years.

Only about seven of 10 oysters will yield commercial pearls, which contributes to their great value. Their price is judged according to roundness, brilliance, texture, size and opalescence. A pearl of great price is indicated by tints of green, blue, violet, pink and yellow playing across its metallic-gray surface.

By purchasing pearls here, we’re told, we get the world’s best prices.

Now travelers can stay at a pension on a pearl farm. Write Pension Tepuna Lagon Takapoto, Tuamotu 98782, Polynesie Francaise, telephone or fax Papeete, Tahiti (689/986-475.

Harvey Hagman

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