POLYNESIA : Black Pearls 

THE BLACK PEARLS OF POLYNESIA

 

Text & Photography by Eric Pasquier

The undisputed King of Pearls is Robert Wan. One of the richest men in Tahiti, he owns Tahiti Perles, a Polynesian company that cultivates that most lustrous of jewels: the black pearl.

Wan’s pearl farms by the Tuamotu and Gambier Islands give birth to perfect Poe Rava, as black pearls are known locally, whose orient, lustre, shape and colour are carefully cultivated.

ERIC PASQUIER went to Tahiti to meet the Fisherking and to follow the black pearl from oyster-irritant to shimmering, luxuriant orb.

 

The first time Robert Wan clapped his eyes on a black pearl, he was so stunned by its beauty he knew that he had met his destiny. He also immediately realised that he could get a lot of money from this. And he did. Robert Wan, the founder of the multi-million Dollar Tahiti Perles, is the undisputed heavyweight champion of pearl production in the South Seas.

More than being the world’s single biggest producer and exporter of Tahiti cultured pearls, most connoisseurs agree that Tahiti pearls are the most beautiful pearls around. The name Robert Wan has become as legendary as the pearls he produces. He has been described as “a one-man De Beers for Tahitian Pearls,” but in his t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, few would think that this is the ruler of a veritable empire. 

Wan’s empire now boasts the world’s only museum dedicated entirely to Tahiti pearls. The prize of his collection is the world’s largest black pearl, which unsurprisingly, bears his own name. It measures a staggering 26,95 mm in diameter; a scale apart from most pearls with their average diameter 8-10 mm. Wan’s favourite though, is a light grey, so-called ‘Baroque’ pearl in the shape of an egg.

 

Mythical status 
So what is the universal attraction of pearls? Their appeal lies partly in their rarity and partly in the fact that they have always been surrounded by myth. According to ancient Chinese legend, pearls were conceived in the brains of dragons, others believed that pearls resulted from a meeting between a rainbow and the earth. Early Christians believed pearls were born from the tears of Adam and Eve after their banishment from the Garden of Eden. 

 

Even now, the very birthplace of these jewels of the sea has a magical air. The Polynesian pearl atolls are ‘geographic oddities’, coral islands that surround lagoons and are perched on the top of ancient, sunken volcanoes. Millions of oysters hang suspended in the lagoons with their hidden treasures growing slowly inside the shells, like chicks waiting to hatch. 

In the idyllic surroundings of azure-blue seas, snowy-white pristine sands and majestic palm trees, like a modern-day alchemist, Robert Wan bends nature’s hand to his own will, in an attempt to create Nature’s most beautiful prize. 

Tahitian Pearls
For 25 years Wan has nurtured the three-way pact uniting the worlds of science, business and nature to create the winning combination that sets the Tahitian pearl a mark above the rest. Tahitian pearls, larger than their Japanese Ayoka siblings, are famous for their metallic lustre and unusual colours ranging from shimmering grey to rainbow, blue, aubergine, peacock green and even pink or gold. The aubergine and peacock colours fetch the highest prices.

Early days 
Wan hasn’t forgotten his humble origins and remains modest in spite of his success. His parents were Chinese immigrants, and as one of eleven children, things definitely weren’t handed to him on a silver platter. Both parents died when he was young and Wan managed to attain some success first as a car dealer and later in hotels. He got into pearl farming in the days when it was still seen more as an adventurous folly, than as a sound business investment. Robert Wan, however, followed his gut instinct, throwing all warnings to the wind. 

He learned the secret of pearl cultivation from an 80-year-old friend of the Japanese pearl pioneer Kokichi Mikimoto, who developed the technique of grafting at the beginning of the century. Grafting involves introducing a mother of pearl bead, or ‘nucleus,’ into the oyster along with a small piece of mantle tissue from another oyster. This tissue contains the cells that stimulate pearl production. Successful grafting, however, is no small feat. When Wan started, more than a quarter of a century ago, his first pearl harvest counted only 1,700 pearls from a stock of 20,000 oysters. 

The problem is that there are so many variables determining the quality of a pearl: the genetic makeup of each oyster, the quality of the plankton in the atoll, temperature, the mineral salts present and the skill of the grafter. 


Despite meticulous care, about half the oysters die after the implant. A lot can go wrong and the entire process is not only extremely labour-intensive, it is also very lengthy, lasting on average a total of five years from baby mollusc to the pearl-bearing oyster. Even when a pearl has successfully been cultivated, only 1 or 2 % are of gem quality. In the end, despite the best efforts of human hands, it’s still all down to Mother Nature.

Robert Wan, however, spent years perfecting the technique and eventually his gut instinct proved right. He is now responsible for 50% of the French Polynesian pearl production. That is a tidy 50 million dollars worth of exports. His pearls are bought by the big-league jewellery houses: Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier and Tiffany. and adorn the world’s most rich and famous women, ranging from Sharon Stone to Hillary Clinton. 

The Philosophy of Hard Work
But, apart from the scientific know-how and a keen nose for business, perhaps the most important key to Wan’s success is his philosophy of hard work. Behind his quiet Buddha-like smile, is the determined glint of a self-made man, and the set jaw of a workaholic. Like a dog with a bone, he just can’t let go - always on the lookout for new business ventures, “You have to expand,” he explains. He recently bought a new atoll. The place was completely deserted. There was nothing. Everything had to be flown in from Tahiti, some 800 km away and that even meant building an airstrip! 

Being workaholic himself, he expects nothing less than the best from his workers. Managers keep track of which oyster was handled by which grafter. The quality of the end product determines how much money his employees take home. “They get a bonus if they’re good, and if they’re not good they go back home,” because for Wan, “Money talks”. 

Wan is also not the type to run operations from behind his desk and literally is not afraid of getting his feet wet - getting down to ground level to check the quality of his products. “You have to work hard. I live to work,” says Wan. Sitting still is just not in Wan’s vocabulary. He takes only one vacation a year; two or three weeks skiing in the Swiss Alps and is planning to set up his own airline company. Now in his mid-‘60’s, he shows no signs of slowing down and enjoying the fruits of his labours, because, for Wan, it is all a labour of love. Love for the Tahitian pearl that stole his heart as a young man.

 

Copyright © Annemarie Hoeve / All rights reserved