Ornament Magazine, Volume 23, Number 4, Summer 2000

Lynne Merchant’s Visit to a Tahitian Pearl Farm

By Robert K. Liu

Imagine being in the South Seas while engaged in one of your favorite pursuits. Lynne Merchant was recently privileged to witness grafting and harvesting of the famed Tahitian black pearls on a pearl farm in Takaroa, located in the Tuamoto-Gambier Islands of French Polynesia. Some forty years ago, her mother had befriended a taxi driver in Tahiti; thereafter, he visited the family each year in California. Once he brought Merchant some Tahitian black pearls as a present. She wished for more to make a necklace, at which point he put her in touch with his relative, Eliane McCabe of Hawaii; six years later they are still friends. Last year McCabe and Merchant visited a pearl farm, through McCabe’s friendship with Jean Pierre Champs, the chief or chef of Paul Yu’s pearl farm, the largest of twenty-five such farms on the Takaroa atoll.

Merchant started working with Tahitian pearls before they became popular, acquiring them from McCabe. Now living in Leucadia, California, she trained at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland but left in her senior year for Canada, which started a travel path that took her to dozens of countries. In some, she learned craft techniques that enabled her to make a living and generated her fascination with wirework, which she has taught for fourteen years, in the United States and abroad. While she works with many forms of jewelry, the combining of Tahitian pearls and silver wire have really struck a chord. Using her hands and only five simple but good tools, Merchant subscribes to the axiom of doing more with less. She has strengthened the art of wirework and evolved a style that is bold, functional and aesthetic, often touched with playfulness. Her wire showcases each pearl, but strives for an understatement, rather than overstatement. The cool neutrality of silver blends well with the black, gray, green, bronze and gold highlights of the pearls, especially appropriate in current preferences for black or neutral-colored clothing. Some of the pearls are almost white, which is more the color of South Sea pearls from Pinctada. maxima of Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

While Merchant’s jewelry has a casual practicality, it is the product of disciplined thought and manual dexterity backed by longterm experience. Pearl farming has a parallel, as many think of it as a carefree way of obtaining wealth in South Seas paradises. It is anything but that, requiring hard work and risk in primitive conditions, balanced by the ability of the grafters to perform with surgical precision.

During Merchant and McCabe’s stay in Takaroa, they observed the gathering of previously grafted pearl oysters, their harvesting, and also first and surgrafte or second grafting. The black-lipped oyster, Pinctada margaritifera, is widespread in tropical waters, and the species cultured in French Polynesia to produce Tahitian or black pearls. Being long-lived, up to thirty years, makes such oysters ideal for culturing pearls, since nacre deposition is only about one millimeter or less per year. Once numerous and gathered for food and its mother-of-pearl for buttons, it is now scarce enough to require cultivation.

Grafted, adult oysters are hung from floats or platforms in strings (chapelet) or in wire mesh cylinders (if there are predators present) some ten meters below the surface of the lagoon; these heavy strings of about twenty oysters each are brought to the workboat by divers and the chapelet carefully counted. Once landed, they are power-washed to clean the shells and are cut free from the nylon monofilament that attaches them individually to the chapelet. The oysters are put into buckets and wedged; each grafter receives a basket of wedged oysters by the grafting station. The small work area has a supply of nuclei of various sizes, which are perfectly round balls ground from the shell of specific species of mussels from the Mississippi River and pieces of mantle epithelium from sacrificed donor oysters. (Although ground pearls may now serve as the nuclei in certain types of cultured Chinese freshwater pearls.) It is this tissue that forms a pearl sac and secretes nacre around the nuclei, to produce a cultured pearl.

With the first graft, the grafter puts a wedged oyster onto a spring-loaded shell holder, then carefully opens the bivalve shells with a dilator, while natural light illuminates the work area from behind him. His spatula pushes aside the oyster’s body parts until the gonad or reproductive organ is visible. (There may be a relationship between the size and shape of the gonad and the resulting pearl.) A tiny incision is made in the downward extension of the gonad; an instrument with a cupped end carries the graft for insertion into this cut, with the exterior or nacre-secreting side of the epithelium facing upward.

An appropriately-sized nucleus is placed on top of the mantle tissue, the organs pushed back in place and the oyster closed. It is then placed in a water-filled container with the hinge at the top, so gravity will not push the nucleus out of the incision. The operation takes one to two minutes but continues at a steady pace throughout the day. About twenty-five to thirty-five grafts are done per hour. Careful records are kept of each grafter’s performance or success rate with grafts, which range from twenty-five to forty percent, although Robert Wan states a rejection rate of forty percent, which means a higher rate of success. The ten or so grafters at Yu’s farm, consisting of one woman and the rest men, all Chinese as opposed to a traditionally Japanese workforce, grafted some six thousand oysters during Merchant’s visit. The owner’s son is one of the grafters.

Six hundred pearls were harvested, all of which were sold to Japan, currently still the largest customer for black pearls. In an established pearl farm, grafting appears to be on a monthly basis, although oysters grafted for the first time require two years of growth before harvesting. Regrafts may be harvested at shorter intervals. Like similar rules at diamond mines, those working on harvests cannot wear gloves, surf shoes or shorts with pockets, to discourage theft.

Harvesting is much like grafting, with essentially the same procedures. Once a pearl is detected through its transparent sac, an incision is made into it and light pressure is exerted to push out the pearl, which is cleaned, recorded and stored. If the oyster is considered healthy, it is regrafted or surgrafted. There can be up to three successive grafts, with larger nuclei (up to ten millimeters) used for the second and third. After the third, it can be used for mabe production. If the oyster is at all unhealthy or has undeveloped gonads, it is either placed back into the lagoon for recovery or further growth or designated for eating, with the shell being sold to Korea for button-making.

Tahitian black pearls are now in vogue, usually worn in staid single or double strands, or with gold and diamonds. Natural black pearls were only discovered in the eighteenth century; now production of cultured pearls from French Polynesia has grown from one kilo in 1972 to eight tons two years ago, and is expected to continue to rise. One hopes that more jewelers will treat these bounties of the sea with the respect and honesty of Merchant’s wirework jewelry. By highlighting their beauty singly or a few to a necklace with silver, she has democratized their availability.