Friday, April 16, 2010

A Visit to a Pearl Farm

We had an opportunity to visit a pearl farm here in the Gambiers. They supposedly produce the best 'black pearls' here of all of French Polynesia.

There is no tourism industry here in Gambiers, so no one is really set up for tours. However, if you ask the right person, they will give you a short look around. Bill from Visions of Johanna set up this trip with Benoit at his pearl farm about a 20 minute walk out of town.

A Typical Pearl Farm Building

The first thing we learned is that the pearl farming work is usually done at a little building on stilts built over the water. We had thought those quaint little houses on the water were for living in, but it turns out to be a convenient way to deal with the pearl activities without stinking up the town. And easier for the coming and going of the oysters, etc. People commute to work from town everyday in launches with outboard motors.

A Typical Pearl Farm Launch

They loaded all 9 of us up in the launch and took us out to their building. Benoit's son gave us a nice explanation of the process.

Benoit's Son Explains the Process to Us

The first step in the pearl farming process is get oysters of the right size and development and implant both a seed pearl and a tiny chip of oyster shell into the gonads. The Japanese perfected this technique and some pearl farmers still use skilled Japanese workers to do this, though the French Polynesians are also learning how to do it.

Then they tie the oysters into racks and take them out in strings to their open water 'farm'. In the Gambiers, you can see many pearl farm bouys scattered around the open parts of the lagoon.

Periodically, they must retrieve the racks and clean the oysters, as clean oysters are happy oysters, and produce better pearls.

Some pearl-producing oysters are recycled, seeded again, after producing a good pearl. Others are saved for their shells. You can also eat the oyster muscle (similar to a scallop).

The hope was, at a pearl farm, that not only would we get some insight into pearl farming, but also be able to buy some pearls at a discount. Alas, it seems that all their production is controlled and they are not supposed to sell their pearls from the farm. There is a nice shop in town that has individual pearls and pearls in settings (rings, earrings, bracelets, and necklaces).

On our walk back from the pearl farm, someone invited us into their yard for free 'pampelmousse' (large sweet grapefruit grown on the island). We gathered all that we could carry!

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