Did you know that Tahitian black pearls are not just black? Did you know that there’s only one kind of mollusk that produces this pearl? Do you know just how long it takes to produce just one pearl? If your answers are no, no, and no, it’s time to feel better about spending so much for the big pearlies that you love by learning the deep secrets of the dark gems of the sea. Find out what makes Tahitian black pearls stand among the rarest, most beautiful, and most valuable pearls in the world.
The black lipped oyster
In the warm saltwaters of French Polynesia, the black lipped oyster (pinctada margaritifera) produces the pearls known as Tahitian blacks. P.margaritifera is the only mollusk that produces these pearls and they do so in places besides Tahiti, so the nomenclature is a little misleading. For the oyster to thrive and for production to occur, the major requirement is that the water be salty and warm. So the name notwithstanding, Tahitian black pearls can be found also in the Philippines, Hawaii, Fiji, Panama, and the Gulf of Mexico.
The Tahitian black pearl is a large pearl as pearls go. That’s because the black lipped oyster is a pretty big oyster as oysters go. The mollusk can grow to sizes approaching a foot across and ten pounds in weight. Its large infrastructure provides the growing room for pearls to grow large, with average pearl diameters from 8 to 14 mm, and larger ones not uncommon. The record holder is 21mm, and you can imagine it must have broken somebody’s bank to have that pearl.
Back to the oyster. While the black lip is the only mollusk that produces black pearls, not all black lipped oysters produce pearls at all. A mere 30% of cultivated P. margaritiferas produce a pearl. So, what’s up with the cultivation process? Cultivation consists of nucleating the oyster with a bead. The bead is usually round and made of mother-of-pearl or similar hard shell-like substance. A person nucleates the oyster by prying the bi-valve shell open a little and inserting the bead. You can imagine this is annoying to the oyster, nevermind that an irritant is left in its innards. For its own comfort, the oyster internally exudes a saliva called nacre, which soothes the irritating effect of the nucleating bead. Layers upon layers of nacre build up, and for time periods up to two years, the bead is covered with the slimy secretions that harden in time and result in a lustrous pearl. Two years and only one pearl! P. margaritifera does it one pearl at a time! No multiple production for this inveterate invertebrate. And remember, only three out of ten oysters so cultivated produce that one pearl in those two years.
Supply and demand
Now you know why even one Tahitian black pearl can be costly. It’s simple supply and demand. There’s a small supply produced by the limited production facility that the black lipped oyster is. Discriminating clientele demand the black pearl; those with the resources to pay the price of a high demand product in small supply get the pearls. Simple as that. But there are ways to have Tahitian black pearls and not break the bank.
Tahitian black pearls are produced naturally in colors besides black. Those colors include the darker pastels of gray, blue, green, pink, orange, brown, yellow, and the shadowy shades of white. The farther the color is from black, the less precious the pearl is in the Tahitian black pearl market. The lighter and colored pearls are no less lustrous or beautiful than the darkest of beauties, and if you’re like me, you’ll welcome the chance to buy them for less with no sacrifice in quality for simply a different color.
Tahitian black pearls are produced in shapes besides round. Because the oyster is a living organism irritated by a decidedly human intervention, it’s probably not thinking much about coating the nucleating bead evenly with its nacre. Consequently, harvested pearls show up in all kinds of sizes and shapes and imperfections in the nacre layering. Perfect large rounds undoubtedly come from a laid back oyster that’s naturally good at whatever it does, but that’s conjecture on my part. Perfect rounds occur rarely. And you’ll pay dearly for one, nevermind enough to make a necklace. The imperfect unrounds are common and, to me, more interesting in their diversity than the perfects are with their perfection. Imperfect, but still beautiful, shapes include off rounds (oblongs, ovals, egg shapes), baroque (any irregularly shaped pearl), and banded (indentations or circles surrounding the circumference of the pearl).
Find beauty and demand design
So, supply, size, shape, and color are the factors that affect pricing of Tahitian black pearls. And it should come as no surprise that the larger, more regularly shaped, and darkest of pearls command the highest prices. Thousands of dollars for just one perfect large pearl is not unheard of. Neither should it come as a surprise to see perfect, large, long, dark strands appearing around the necks of some movie stars, female Congressional leaders, and business heiresses.
For the rest of us, we can find extraordinary beauty in the irregularity and imperfections of the black lipped oysters’ limited output without breaking the bank or robbing Peter to pay Paul. Demand design from your Tahitian black pearls and your investment will show better and bigger than a boring strand of the biggest dark perfects.