The Matangi skiff revved its single engine and we began our journey due west toward Tavenui. Our first stop – a Fijian pearl farm. I grew up riding horses, so of course I’ve been to plenty of farms ‘on land.’ But, a farm in the ocean? This is a first for me.
Montreal native. Once advertising agency owner turned round the world sailor turned pearl cultivator. His name: Claude. His goal – to raise, harvest and sell Fiji’s most desirable pearls. From leather-clad board room hosting conference calls to a elevated wooden-plank hut sprinkled with wasps and oyster guts. Oh, and zero cell phone reception.
The process of pearl-making is in a way similar to wine or champagne making. It requires patience, timing, and a lot of TLC. First the mature oyster spawns creating thousands of black larvae. These larvae fight their way through the rolling waves and the strong attach themselves to a man-made line of rope covered with netted sponges. These vertical sponge lines act as a shelter for the delicate larvae to grow. After about 6 months the larvae develop into 1-2 inch baby oysters. These immature oysters continue to grow on their spongy lines until they reach the age of a year. This is the stage where the TLC begins. Each oyster (approximately 4-5 inches) is removed from their first home and are plunked down onto the wooden deck of the oyster house and have their first appointments at the Oyster Spa. Each side of the shell is scraped clean of debris, barnacles, and seaweed. An oyster facial.
Teenage oysters are eager to run off on their own, so oyster master Claude ‘grounds them’ until their adult life, by drilling part of their hard shell and tying them to a new vertical roped nest to continue their development into adulthood.
Just before the oysters’ 18 month birthday, the process of nucleation begins. I am a pearl virgin, because I thought that the oyster was able to grow its own pearl naturally. Less than 1% of pearls sold (and declining) are from the natural birth process. Nearly 100% of pearls are due to the nucleation process. Just like wine and champagne-making, pearl making is under the control of the human touch.
Claude flies in a world-renown (or at least to pearl enthusiasts) pearl cultivator from Japan. Claude claimed that Japanese pearl makers are ‘better’ than Chinese pearl makers.
The first thing the master of the pearl does is find a donor pearl. This is a mature pearl that has a wow factor ring of color (black, green, pinks and golds) inside its shell. A small piece of mantle tissue is taken (grafted) from the donor oyster.
Second, all the prepped oysters are nucleated using a ‘bead’ prepared from mother-of-pearl (the inside of a mature oyster’s shell). Just a side note, a bead the size of 1 carat diamond ring is about $100, but a bead the size of a marble is around $800!
The bead is now surrounded by a small piece of mantle tissue taken from the donor oyster. The bead and tissue are then implanted into the oyster’s gonad – yes you heard it right. Ouch. The bead serves as a mold, or nucleus around which the pearl develops. The resulting pearl will contain the bead as its center and will tend to develop in the same genera shape as the original bead.
After nucleating, the oysters are given a few weeks to recover from the surgery. During the time, some of the oysters may reject and expel the implanted nuclei; others may become sick or even die. Most however, will fully recover. The knocked up oysters are now moved to cages or nets and transferred to oyster beds (yes, the knocked up oysters are bed ridden for the duration of their pregnancy). The animals will continue receiving their TLC and spa treatments as their pearls develop around the bead. Depending on the ambition of the oyster, this process can require anywhere from a few additional months to several more years!
After the pearls have received many facials (the scraping of the outer ocean debris) and given the time and patience to develop fully, they must be harvested. After the pearls are extracted from the oysters, they are washed, dried, and sorted into general categories based on their color, size, and shape. Finally, Claude’s pearls are sold to hotels in the Northern island group of Fiji as well as local jewelers.
As for the knocked up, spa treated, bed ridden oysters, they begin their process all over again. Each additional nucleation produces larger and larger pearls. Talk about brood-mare.
Claude’s CIVA pearls are sold out each year. This is his fifth year in business and he predicts the next harvest (February 2012) to produce 1800 new pearls. Claude and his wife don’t have a website (they left the stresses of click through rates and banner ads behind when they sold their advertising agency), but check out their Facebook page. Claude loves to see how his hand-raised pearls end up in life. Rings, necklaces, bracelets, or earings.
Randy and I were able to snorkel around the oyster farm and while we were underwater saw this AMAZING lion fish chillin’ near the NICU.