The growing of jewels.

In the beginning, pearl divers would dive for pearl oysters (Pinctada margaritifers), they would then bring them up  to the boat and open them to check if the specimen contained a pearl or not. The open shells were either thrown back into the sea or kept for the production of mother of pearl. Today we can look into the 'belly' of the creature with small x-ray equipment to check for pearls. When the interest in mother of pearl began to die down, the pearls began to be the aim of the dives. The hunts became so intensive that in some regions the pearl oyster became extinct. 
But in 1920, Mikimoto, a Japanese man, found a way of forcing pearl oyster to create jewels. A piece of epidermis is taken from a live mollusc, it is then used to cover a 'pearl seed' - for example a piece of shell from the Mississipi clam, and once again returned back into the mollusc. After a while, the 'seed' is wrapped in layers of pearl and has commercial value after two years (for a naturally produced pearl, one must wait at least five years). On the basis of this method the farming of artificial pearls for commercial reasons became more common. Artificial pearls have a smaller commercial value than natural ones, however they are usually undistinguishable. (Although it is supposedly possible to do so using spectroscopic methods, as artificial pearls absorb less ultraviolet light than natural ones.) 
In the eighties farming of black lipped pearl oyster began in the region of Cooks Archipelago, which was chosen as the location due to the unusually high concentration of black pearls from some of the local atolls. 


Leading the way was the Manihiki atoll, the locals of which have for many years dived for pearls and mother of pearl. Some of the atolls of Tuamoto as well as Tongareva and Suwarrow have also provided black pearls. In the eighties, though, Manihiki became 'pearl central'. Pearl farms were set up where on lines suspended under the water lived many pearl oyster. Every so often, the workers would take a look to see how they were going, to ensure that they had not been attacked by parasites, cleaned them of excess algae and then once again returned them to the sea. After a few years the pearls were collected and the next colony was started. 


This is what a black lipped pearl oyster looks like.

 
The condition of work are difficult. The little islands of the atolls are sometimes barely one or two metres above sea level, and the locals are susceptible to devastating typhoons. The firms that are responsible for these workers often build houses directly above the pearl lagoons. Although they look very picturesque, but can have tragic consequences. 

 

 

Yearly in Avarua, Raratonga, there is an auction of black pearls, and the profit from this, which can amount to a couple of million US dollars, makes quite a contribution towards the budget of the country. (The Cook Islands are part of New Zealand territory, but are autonomous.) Pearl enthusiasts from around the world come for these auctions, and the pearls later become incredible art creations. 

It takes your breath away when you realize the value of black pearls on the international market. For example - in 1990, in New York, a string of black pearls was sold for US$ 880 000. Each pearl in the necklace (there were 27 altogether) was worth US$32 000! 

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(C) (selected from publications of 
 R. Antoszewski

Titirangi, Auckland, 
New Zeland

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February  2003

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