The famous Black Pearls of Tahiti are part of the magic of the Polynesian seas. They are the product of a complicated partnership between humans and oysters, spawned in the beautiful lagoons of the distant atolls of Tuamotu.
The Tuamotu Archipelago is strewn across the empty sea by the string of bright Tahitian Pearls. They are atolls, coral crowns on the rims of ancient volcanoes outlined in breaking surf. They are made up of two mountainous islands and seventy-six atolls. Each atoll traps and holds a piece of ocean, a lagoon that acts like a giant soup tureen for plankton. The lagoons also protect and nourish the black-lipped pearl oyster.
At the turn of the century, the pearl fisheries of Polynesia harvested oysters for the iridescent inner shell used to make buttons. Today, almost every pearl on the world market is cultured, grown by man.
A Tuamotu atoll
The pearl farmers of Tahiti use plastic garlands suspended in the lagoon to provide an anchorage for the drifting pinhead-size larvae. In a few months, each garland is choked with little oysters, and at six months, the oysters are placed in hanging baskets (below), where they grow for another year and a half. The oysters are then removed and wedged open, one by one. With surgical precision, a slip is made with a scalpel near the oyster's gonad, and a snippet of mantle tissue followed by a bead carved from the shell of an American fresh water mussel. After surgery, the oysters are returned to the lagoon and will be ready to harvest in three years.
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Hanging baskets containing the oysters.
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