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Tahitian Pearls | Development of the French Polynesian Cultured Pearl Industry
07-19-2011, 05:07 PM

Polynesian legend contains references to the Pinctada margaritifera mollusk that births the distinctive black pearls, recounting them as a combined gift from the gods of peace, fertility, coral, and sand. Early pearl fishing in the late 19th century began to deplete the natural stock, encouraging the government to seek help from experts to establish methods for creating cultured pearl farms.

In the 1960s, with assistance from Japanese technicians, the first few successful harvests were made. French brothers Jacques and Hubert Rosenthal established the first farm in 1966, though their first harvest did not take place until 1972. Their success sparked others to establish pearl farms on several of the other islands, creating much-needed jobs and halting the influx of immigration to the capital.

The international market was not sure what to do with the debut of these unusually colored pearls, assuming they must be artificially colored. Salvador Assael, a New York-based businessman, saw the potential in the new Tahitian pearls, and quickly became the most vocal promoter for them in the international market. The GIA, the Gemological Institute of America, finally verified the pearls as being of natural color and a few years later, they broke through onto the jewelry market with the first purchase of Tahitian necklaces by Harry Winston.

Robert Wan became the next pioneer to further develop the black pearl industry and Tahitian Pearls, investing money and business contacts into the purchase of several pearl farms. Umbrella organizations formed to group smaller farms together, creating a “pearl rush” in the 1980s. International buyers began to flock to the organizations’ auctions, and production continued to increase annually. Demand soared, but the farms struggled to produce the high standard of pearl that the market needed. Only a small fraction of the pearls harvested were of high quality.

The government continued to license new farms to produce Tahitian Pearls, hoping that the farms would increase the health of local economies, but quality control began to be the bigger issue. Farmers rushed into the new industry without the proper training and knowledge, flooding the market with low quality pearls. By the mid-1990s, the industry began to stabilize, and the pearl organizations continued their efforts to promote Tahitian pearls as a high-end gemstone in the international market.

In 1996, a new perfume was launched by Elizabeth Arden and created by actress Elizabeth Taylor called “Black Pearls”, increasing demand overnight for Tahitian Pearls. International designers and photographers continued to increase the visibility of the pearls, and the Tahitian government set a goal to double production by 2005. Farms rushed to meet the projected goal and subsequently exceeded it, creating the new problem of over-productivity. In 1998, a classification system was put into use in an effort to regulate exportation and maintain the high-quality image of the Tahitian pearl as a brand.

An official Pearl Ministry was formed in 2001 to further stabilize production and to crack down on the illegal export dumping of low quality pearls.

Last edited by pearleducation; 07-19-2011 at 05:52 PM.
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