Green, semi-baroque, 10 mm, blue, round, 9 mm, silver, button, 12 mm, aubergine, keishi, 14 mm, grey – my head was spinning from seeing all these different kinds, shapes, and sizes of pearls in French Polynesia.
And though one gets the impression that it’s a federal offence to leave these islands without purchasing a pearl (or even better: a whole string of pearls), I held out as long as possible. That is … until I found out that I could dive for pearls in Bora Bora and bring home my very own jewel of the ocean. This means, not only do you have a reason to visit this dream-island with its unique and impressive mountains, but also, you’ll get jewelry with a story!
Know your pearls before you hunt for them
As soon as we arrived at The Farm of the Bora Pearl Company, we were greeted by the friendly staff who gave us some insights into the subject before our dive for pearls in Bora Bora could begin. This is how a pearl becomes a pearl:
- Find a black-lipped oyster interior shell that has a color you want to see in a pearl and cut tiny 2x2mm slices from the edge of the mollusk.
- Open a healthy oyster slightly apart and insert the small slice as well as a little, round bead or “nucleus” (made from the shell of the Mississippi mussel) in the mollusk’s egg pouch.
- Put the oyster back into the water in a net or on a string, at a depth of 3-9 m/ 9-27 ft.
- Waaaaaiiiiit… while continuously cleaning the oyster from algae and hoping no turtle will eat it.
- 18 months later, spread the oyster again slightly apart and see if a pearl has formed inside.
- If the pearl is perfectly round, insert another, slightly larger, nucleus and start all over again (this can be done up to 4 times).
Maeve, the Marketing Manager of The Farm, told me that the pearls I was going to pick from were already a second harvest. Which got me even more excited about what I might find as this means I could expect something bigger than 8 or 9 mm. Within a seconds after the traditional outrigger canoe appeared to take me out to dive my oysters, I was in the boat—fins on, mask and snorkel ready. My dive for pearls in Bora Bora could begin!
Dive for pearls in Bora Bora at The Farm
While we only went a dozen or so meters from shore, the floor of the Bora Bora lagoon drops off fairly precipitously, which means I was diving in 30 m/98 ft deep water. A couple of buoys marked the oyster farm. Ropes were strung between the buoys that had many strings hanging down, each of which had roughly eight oysters. As one can imagine, all geared up and psyched to learn what I might find, I was eager to get down and dive for pearls in Bora Bora.
The last advice I heard before I jumped in the water was: “Don’t drop the string, it’s deep here”. At first I thought this was a joke, but when I had chosen a string and began untying it I suddenly felt how heavy it was. You wouldn’t call it “heavy” on land, but with still 3 m/ 10 ft of water above me to swim through, it weighed a lot.
But of course the desire for my pearl was strong enough to help me hold my breath a little longer so I could untie this heavy load and get it to the surface. Once out of the water, I hauled my “catch of the day” into the outrigger canoe. Full of adrenaline, the sun shining brightly and the beautiful mountains of the island towering in the distance, I returned to shore, the first “leg” of my dive for pearls in Bora Bora adventure complete.
The next phase was even more difficult than diving. Perhaps not as physically challenging but certainly emotionally challenging. I had ten oysters lying in front of me, but was only allowed to choose one. I hate making decision, and a lot was riding on this one: I could end up with a beautiful, priceless gem, or an ugly, worthless bead.
Luckily, at The Farm you can’t really go wrong. First of all, the pearls here are generally high quality, as they come from The Farm’s own pearl farm in Tahaa (which is a prime growing area for pearls, despite the claim that only the remote Tuamotu atolls produce the best pearls), and are transported to Bora Bora only so customers can dive for them. Second, for the 300 USD you pay for this experience, you’re allowed to keep whatever you find, no matter how valuable the pearl.
If you find a USD 2,000 pearl, it’s your lucky day!I If you pick a dud, or just don’t like the way it looks, you can exchange it for any pearl in the shop worth up to 300 USD. Of course, estimating the value of a pearl is a bit of science (and perhaps also a bit of smoke and mirrors), but we heard they are very honest at The Farm. Knowing all of this, I felt a little less pressured, and picked an oyster that looked promising.
The Tahitian black-lipped oyster reveals its secret
One of the grafters at the farm put my oyster in a special holder and opened it up. After a few seconds of carefully searching, he pulled out an enormous pearl and dropped it into my hands. I was totally stunned. It wasn’t the color the name black pearl suggests, but to be honest I’ve never seen a really black one during my whole stay in French Polynesia.
After I examined my pearl in my hands, we cleaned, polished and measured it. The result? I had ”un-oceaned” an amazing 14 mm, semi-round, silver-gray pearl, with a few flaws that I could easily hide if I chose the right setting. Pretty good first dive for pearls in Bora Bora I’d say!
Give your pearl the setting it deserves
I could have chosen a setting right at the pearl store of The Farm where less adventurous clients can buy pearl necklaces, rings, bracelets and ear rings without getting wet. But I couldn’t make up my mind yet, and loved the raw look of my loose pearl too much to have it made into a pendant.
Now I’m back home in Germany, and it seems to be pretty hard to find a jeweler that isn’t afraid of drilling my pearl because of the fear of damage. As the pearl business is huge in French Polynesia, all of the reputable merchants know how to drill pearls, and I never even heard any one uttering concerns of breaking or chipping a pearl.
One gets the impression (although I can’t confirm this) that if a pearl shop in French Polynesia damaged your pearl while drilling (which never seems to happen), that they would replace it.
Anyway, I’ll have to take my chances here for the last “stage” of my great pearl adventure: Find the exact setting I want (maybe even make it myself) and find a jeweler who drills my pearl. Or I could just book my next trip back to Tahiti and its islands an have it done there, which sounds like a pretty awesome idea when I think about it!