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French Polynesia Travel Guide

Do Not Buy This Ocean Gem in French Polynesia

Let us offer this pearl of wisdom.

Many travelers to French Polynesia return home with a string of brilliant pearls, cultured right in the turquoise waters of the country’s coral atolls. While the particular brand of pearls marketed as “Tahitian pearls” are sold throughout the world, it is in Tahiti that travelers can avail themselves of the widest selection.

Here, the conditions are ideal habitats for the Pinctada margaritifera genus of saltwater oyster, which is used to culture Tahitian pearls. Noted for their luster and oftentimes brilliant overtones, these pearls range in color from pale white to deep purple, although a common misnomer for Tahitian pearls is “black pearls.”

Tahitian pearls are also not generally cultured on the island of Tahiti itself. The growing conditions are best in the island groups known as the relatively nearby Tuamotus and the much more distant Gambiers, just over a thousand miles from Tahiti.

When purchasing Tahitian pearls, travelers can take solace in knowing that cultured pearls from French Polynesia are a naturally grown product straight from the pristine waters of the lagoon. They’re also the top export for the remote, semi-autonomous region of France, supporting many remote island communities otherwise dependent on fishing and copra (dried coconut shell) production.

Sustainable Pearl Farming

Natural pearls produced by oysters without human intervention are exceptionally rare. Virtually all commercially available pearls are cultured pearls, meaning a pearl nucleus has been inserted into a live oyster raised on an oyster farm.

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Because pearls are naturally produced in the ocean, they’re a relatively sustainable gem. But Celeste Brash and her husband Josh Humbert, who own the Kamoka Pearl Farm on the island of Ahe, noticed industry practices that could be improved. The first thing they took issue with was the practice of power-washing marine fouling (scum, basically) off the exterior of the oysters before opening them to harvest the pearl and insert a new nucleus (an oyster can produce three pearls in its lifetime).

At some pearl farms, the fouling was discharged back into the lagoon, causing harm to the fragile coral ecosystem. So instead of power washing their oysters, they pull them up from their locations and bring them into the shallower water near the farm for a few days for the reef fish to nibble at the fouling. Same effect—less waste.

Brash also noted they work to be as sustainable as possible by generating all their power onsite using clean energy methods like wind and solar, fishing, and developing ways to grow their own food in a punishing environment (coconut palms are one of the few things that grow well in the crushed coral soils of an atoll), and hiring local residents to assist in pearl grafting (many pearl farms import pearl grafters from China).

Buying Pearls

In French Polynesia, pearls are sold everywhere—from fancy shops in luxury resorts to family sellers operating in their living rooms or in several independent pearl farms. In the Society Islands (the country’s most visited island group, which includes Tahiti and Bora Bora), these pearl farms can be found on Taha’a, Raiatea, and Huahine.

In Tahiti, the best place to buy pearls is the public market, where there’s a wide selection of mounted pearls in all price ranges. Many of the vendors also sell loose pearls in big plastic buckets. Customers simply pick out their own pearls, and then the shop will string or mount them in a variety of settings.

Travelers should have loose pearls mounted or strung, even if they have a favored jeweler at home. The government of French Polynesia places limits on how many loose pearls can be taken duty-free out of the country, and pearl jewelry carried by departing visitors receives a tax refund that doesn’t apply to the export of loose pearls.

The sustainable, eco-friendly pearls from Kamoka Pearls can be found on their website.

A Gem to Avoid

While pearls are eco-friendly ocean-borne gems, there’s an ocean gem to be avoided: coral.

There are several types of coral sold in the world’s jewelry markets. Black Hawaiian Coral is the only type of coral legally allowed to be harvested in the United States, and it’s done so under strict regulation.

Otherwise, the import of gem-grade coral to the United States is legal, although many jewelers have stopped selling coral jewelry for ethical reasons. Shoppers will often see glossy pieces of the polished coral in stunning red or pink hues, fashioned from the skeletons of slow-growing deep water corals that were typically harvested by a dredge system.

The deep-water corals, which have a growth cycle longer than a human lifetime, also provide vital marine habitats that are disrupted by dredging operations and other harvest types alike. There are other types of coral coming on the market to replace the precious deep-water corals that have been popularly enjoyed in the past, but in a world where the status of vital coral reefs is becoming more alarmingly endangered almost by the day, it makes sense to make jewelry choices that are more verifiably sustainable.