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Pearls have had a place in American politics for as long as patriotism has existed. From Martha Washington’s and Mary Todd Lincoln’s beloved seed pearls to Ladybird Johnson’s and Jackie Kennedy’s white strands to Barbara and Laura Bush’s South Seas and more, pearl necklaces have been a fixture on the necks of first ladies and other powerful women in politics, who wear them for the understated elegance and classical beauty they offer. Diamonds would be too brash, but pearls? “They’re not ostentatious and they go with everything,” observes longtime Washington, D.C.–based jeweler Ann Hand.
Black South Sea pearls grown in the waters surrounding French Polynesia are now entering their seventh decade of culturing. #thisispearl looks back on the history, and the industry weighs in on the mark these exotic beauties have made in fine jewelry.
Pearl lovers may find it difficult to think of a jewelry world withou Tahitian black pearls, but that was once the case; Tahitian pearls grown in the black-lipped Pinctada margaritifera oyster have been cultured and produced with regularity only for the past 60 years.
For centuries before that, locals on islands in the South Pacific used naturally occurring Tahitian pearls and mother-of-pearl shell in decorations. Explorers like Portuguese navigator Pedro Fernández de Quirós, who landed in Hao, or Haorangi, a large coral atoll in the central part of the Tuamotu Archipelago in 1606, were dazzled by their beauty.
Kokichi Mikimoto, father of the cultured pearl, tried in 1920 to culture black pearls, first in
Palau and then in the waters surrounding the island of Ishigaki-jima in southwest Japan. Tests were somewhat satisfactory, yet the venture was abandoned.
“The Japanese gave up the experimentation because the pearls obtained were not of enough good quality,” explains Patrick Seurot, editor of the French Polynesian Poe Rava magazine and the author of a new book about the history of the Tahitian pearl. 1961–2021, The 60 Years of the Pearl of Tahiti will be available by the end of 2021.
It wasn’t until 1961, when French veterinary surgeon Jean-Marie Domard organized the first successful graft with a Japanese technician in the lagoon of Hikueru, one of the Central Tuamotu atolls, that black Tahitian pearls could be made available in quantity.
And how grateful is the pearl world for this accomplishment? It’s tough to express in words, so numbers may best tell the tale. About 600 farmers throughout French Polynesia produced more than 9 million pearls in 2019, and along with tourism, Tahitian pearls are one of French Polynesia’s greatest sources of revenue and its biggest export. Tahitian black pearls are worn by celebrities, politicians, and royalty alike and are a fixture in the cases of top jewelry houses worldwide.
Happy anniversary, Tahitian pearls. Here’s to the phenomenon that is the black South Sea Tahitian pearl.
Tahitian Pearls Turn
Revisit the history,
fall in love with the pearl
all over again