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The Tahitian Island of Negonego

A surreal dive in balmy Tahitian waters for the source of this most classic gem

By Guy Trebay

I am wrist-deep in pearls. There's an oak bucket of them freshly plucked from their oysters and recently washed. Several hundred more are drying on a nearby bath towel. Plastic bags filled with them are stacked on a table, sorted by color and size. Here are the blacks, which aren't black at all but a shimmering gunmetal. Here are the peacocks, a fugitive magenta overlaid with a viridescent sheen. Here are some in the precise shade of a 1946 DeSoto my father inherited from a great-uncle, a Sunday churchgoing car complete with running boards. The inky blue of a mussel shell, these pearls are somehow even more fathomless than the lovingly buffed finish on Uncle Reginald's automobile.

I am on Negonego, a Tahitian island in the Tuamotu Archipelago. Calling it an island may be a bit of an exaggeration: it is a scrap of coral midway between South America and Australia. Negonego is owned by a Chinese-Tahitian not unreasonably known as the emperor of Tahitian pearls. To get here requires not only the permission of this man but also a seat on his private jet. There is no security, if you don't count the French navy, which patrols the military installations of the South Pacific and also keeps pirates from sweeping down onto the remote lagoons where Tahiti's most precious crop is cultivated. A crown of coral growing atop a submerged mountain, Negonego is a rare geological formation—a natural island and lagoon. By a series of complex thermodynamic operations, deepwater nutrients rise from the ocean floor, making the Pacific here among the richest fishing grounds on earth, and also creating the conditions for phenomenal pearls. Strung across the lagoon are large bamboo rafts; otherwise there is nothing to interrupt the view to the horizon. Add to this scene Ursula Andress singing "Underneath the Mango Tree," and you could easily be on the island of Dr. No.

I am two hours' flying time from Papeete, halfway through an improbable journey around the world. When I left New York, I knew little about pearls beyond the banal fact that Mother Has Them. Actually, my own mother is no longer, as the euphemism goes, "with us," but while alive she did own some, which were of a pinkish hue and worn in the several chaste strands that were the style of her finest era, the 1950's.

Pearls, I knew, were lunar and virginal and old-fashioned and, oddly, again in fashion. After decades of being seemingly uninfluenced by changes in taste and style, they were suddenly subject to the breathless hyperbole that accompanies the big new thing. The pearl merchant Salvador Assael went so far as to place an ad in American glossies announcing: "A new gem is born." It was, in fact, the same gem, the black pearl of literary legend, that divers have for centuries been taking from the South Pacific, the very waters that inspired exoticists from the 19th-century French writer Pierre Loti to whoever it was that first wrapped Dorothy Lamour in a sarong.

In the new scheme of things, pearls are almost invariably cultured, or man-produced, and cultured pearls are no longer a mandatory pinky white. Neither are they axiomatically of a ladylike size. Cultured pearls now come in weird colors and gumball gauges. With their exotic geographic biographies attached, they are highly covetable gems. I have heard stories of million-dollar necklaces and met people with dotcom billions and steel-clad charge cards who have rather casually dropped $120,000 on, say, a string of simple grays.

The eerily beautiful black South Sea pearl has, for the moment, mounted a serious threat to the long hegemony of the traditional Japanese white. The Japanese market, meanwhile, has also suffered from competition with the Chinese, from accusations of bleaching and dyeing, and from the less easily remedied complaint that the restrained qualities of the proverbial single white strand seem best suited to prom queens or runners-up in a Miss Firecracker contest. Black is the new white, a development that will be reversed only if the Australians manage to reclaim their share of the international market with the buttery South Sea pearls they now successfully grow to the size of marbles. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

My host on negonego is robert wan, a thickset Tahitian of Chinese ancestry; a former car dealer and frozen-foods mogul; a man with intricate political connections, now widely regarded as the impresario of South Sea pearls. We are four on the island, if you don't count staff. There are, besides myself, Mr. Wan and Teva Sylvain, a photographer who has the monopoly on cheesy Tahitian postcards picturing buxom wahines, as well as a buxom wahine from Aix-en-Provence, who is wearing a bikini and a flowered lei.

A farmworker has driven us in a flatbed to the immaculate cinder-block house of Gérard Clairefond, the manager of Negonego, for a feast that could shame some of the finest chefs in the world. Laid out on a picnic table covered with a checkered plastic cloth is an enormous platter of fresh tuna sushi, prepared by Clairefond's young Tahitian wife. Lobsters from the lagoon are roasting over driftwood on an outdoor grill. Chilled Veuve Clicquot adds to the unreality of the scene. But I am becoming accustomed to some level of unreality in my pursuit of the pearl.

It began in Jaipur, India, with a friend in the jewelry business reaching into a hidden drawer and extracting from it one of those turban ornaments that princely families seem to dredge up when household finances get tight. This one was an elaborate headpiece of old-mine diamonds crowned by a ruby-tasseled doodad set with an enormous pearl. The pearl was nearly 20 millimeters, or about the size of an aggie, and not round, but the gorgeously deformed shape called baroque. It would once have been considered an incredible rarity. It was still worth a fortune, my friend explained, principally because it was a natural, rather than a cultured pearl. "But the only people who care about the difference are jewelers and collectors." He shrugged. "There are very few pearls anymore that aren't cultured. And, with the new methods, they can easily grow them and bring them to market this size."

Advances in pearl farming technology, accompanied by a certain decline in taste, have led to a market glutted with pearls so oversize as to achieve the seemingly impossible: they look fake. "The market has evolved," said Ghislain d'Humières, a jewelry expert at Christie's. "People are not satisfied anymore with simple graduated strands. They're looking for the unusual." D'Humières mentioned the orange-hued pearls of Burma, Tahitian blacks, the golden pearls of the Philippines. "Pink, green, aubergine, any color," he said. "And big."

it's harvest time on negonego. The little island is fully populated with crews of Tahitian laborers and Japanese technicians. After lunch, we are led to one of the pearling sheds. The first is a crude, open-ended structure on the lagoon, where workers in rubber aprons stand at huge tables using knives with sharp, scimitar-shaped blades to scale the young oysters as they're brought from the rafts. It's a scene as far as can be imagined from the monied hush under which most people encounter pearls. Waves bang against the pilings. Barnacles and marine trash litter the floor. The place smells like a fish market, although this doesn't seem to trouble a scroungy mutt curled up in a corner on a shell-encrusted heap of net.

Several divers in neoprene wet suits haul bushels of oysters to the worktables; from here they're transported to another station, where workers insert the oysters in mesh pockets, the whole to be returned to the ocean. A separate group of mature oysters is brought to an adjacent building for harvesting by technicians, who work in guarded cubicles using tools suggestive of a carpenter performing oral surgery.

It is not on this visit, and not in fact for some time, that I will learn that the largest pearls are produced by oysters subject to repeat implantations. To create a pearl that would make any kind of splash in Tiffany's window, it's necessary to start with a good-sized insert, a pearl-like bead made from Mississippi mussel shell. The implants themselves are graduated in size from ball bearing to champagne grape. Jamming a 12-millimeter implant into a virgin mollusk, I learned, generally results in the death of the oyster. This helps explain why the black-pearl choker of perfectly matched 18-millimeter beads I admired at Robert Wan's shop in Papeete had required five harvests to assemble.

"For good-quality pearls, you have to have sixty percent nacre," Wan explained to me in the brass-and-plate-glass Tahiti Perles shop, an anomalous bit of Faubourg St.-Honoré tucked in among the snack wagons and tattooed island bums along the waterfront in downtown Papeete. Wan's assertion, which may have been a slight exaggeration, is based on the fact that if the nacre, the layers of calcium carbonate crystals secreted by an oyster, is poor, a pearl will form whose skin is too thin to refract, diffuse, and absorb ambient light. Worse yet, the nacre of inferior pearls can sometimes erode over time, leaving the gem with a bald spot.

I've seen them—cheap and lusterless black marbles sold at the perimeter of the municipal market in downtown Papeete. Here, amid the stalls of floral shields and plumeria leis and fleshy mangoes and straw skirts, merchants set up folding tables and put out low-grade pearls in paper cups. The cruise-ship tourists sit and sift for hours. At $10 or $20 a pearl, it's hard to resist these bargain souvenirs. And why should you?Most jewelers back home can drill and mount them, and those who know their business will probably refrain from mentioning that what you bought was not much better than what you could have gotten at a department store.

A commonplace of pearl vending is the trader's advice to "see for yourself." My dealer friend in Jaipur framed the issue slyly: "Choosing a pearl is a matter of personal taste," he says. "You apply rational standards, but what good are they ultimately?It's like falling in love with a woman. You just fall in love. You don't ask the weight of her bones."

That pearls, in fact, are not like other commodities was illustrated to me once in the office of David Norman, scion of a pearl-trading dynasty. I'd flown to Australia to see this ruddy, tall dealer with a great beak of a nose. Seated at a desk covered with necklaces of immense South Sea pearls tangled in trays, Norman reached into a drawer and removed a rare book.

The 19th-century volume, called Au Jardin des Gemmes, was addressed to an imaginary reader, and seemed written in a kind of Balzacian swoon. "The necklace which you are wearing, Madam, this necklace whose iridescence illumines your beauty, is full of mystery and terror, to a greater degree than any other wonder of the world . . . bought, resold, having been the means, perhaps, of saving their ruined owner from death, exhibited in jewelers' windows, carried about in brokers' wallets, sometimes stolen and the center of a journalistic agitation in the papers which carry the news to all corners of the world—in wearing these pearls you are wearing a fragment of the history of humanity."

Symbolically, at least, you might think of the necklace as a placeholder on a long human connection to pearls, a history that most likely began in the ancient pearling beds of the Persian Gulf and was carried on in every place where water meets shore. The aesthetic lure of a pearl requires no explanation. But there's another kind of allure in pearls, an attraction I think of as metaphoric. Formed as a kind of biological protest to invasion, a pearl is made in much the same way as identity is. First you have the initial irritation, that single angry grain of sand. Afterward, the layers start to form.

Through the open shed door we can see the workers' concrete houses. "It's a little like slaveage," photographer Teva Sylvain says in fractured English. The sky has turned slaty and an onshore wind suddenly whips the lagoon waves into stiff little peaks. "So," Robert Wan says, "do you want to see what all this work is for?"

Without waiting for a reply, he strides toward a separate building, where the harvested pearls are sorted and stored. The farm manager, Gérard Clairefond, leads us into a small building with fluorescent lighting and linoleum floors. There is a crude map of the island, looking like a misshapen Lifesaver. There are small oaken barrels through which water is pumped and the pearls rolled clean. There is also a conspicuous absence: no sign of a safe. When Clairefond empties a pouch containing hundreds of pearls onto a terry-cloth towel in the harvest shed at Negonego, everyone in our small group of visitors falls silent.

It's hard to see this amazing trove without thinking of Aladdin's cave, of kings' ransoms, of treasure caskets, of piratical plunder. The gems on the table might be worth millions of dollars on the world market. Sorted and matched and drilled and strung, they will one day turn up at Harry Winston and Tiffany and Chaumet. And they will play their part, as the author of Au Jardin des Gemmes knew, in narratives of love and betrayal and seduction and violence and greed.

Newly emerged from the ocean, the gems seem exquisitely neutral, a scattering of amazing lustrous spheres. At first they're more difficult to differentiate than beads of caviar. But then the eye adjusts. Each of us in the shed begins touching the pearls, rolling them across the towel's white surface. Favorites emerge. They're the ones of exceptional color or those with a luster that seems to draw you in. "The more the play of color, the better the pearl," says Wan, plucking out an enormous peacock-colored gem. "Follow the light," he adds. "If the light stops too soon, a pearl is dead."

The best pearls, such as this one, appear to magnetize light by a process whose prosaic explanation (a kind of prismatic ricochet occurs amid the sharp-edged crystals of calcium carbonate) tends to cheat the pearl of something ineffable. There is no shortage of overripe rapture to be found in literature about pearls, and no dearth either of myth and legend and parable. I've sometimes felt that far too much magic is invested in a bead birthed by an oyster's indigestions. But suddenly, here in the middle of the South Pacific, I don't think that anymore.

The selection of black South Sea pearls in Tahiti is, not surprisingly, unmatched elsewhere. It's reason enough to make a trip. And the hugely negotiable prices (even at luxury stores) begin a third lower than at comparable places outside French Polynesia. Australian South Sea cultured pearls are farmed in the waters off the Australian coast. Of the colors available—gold, white, silver, and rose—the pink-hued pearls are to my mind the loveliest.

At a typical size of 12 millimeters, South Sea pearls are costly, of course. Yet, thanks in part to a strong U.S. dollar, they're a bargain when bought in Australia or Tahiti. Below, what you need to know before you buy.

THE LOOK The essential value of any pearl lies in its ability to absorb, refract, and reflect light. These three attributes combine to create what's called orient—the iridescence and, some would say, inner glow of a pearl. The deeper the luster, the finer the orient, the better the pearl. It's that simple. In determining pearl quality, the rule of thumb is to consider orient, size, shape, and surface. When you place two strings of pearls alongside each other, it should be easy to tell from the luster which has the finer gems.

SURFACE AND SIZE Aside from serious blemishes (easily seen with the naked eye), irregularity is to be expected and doesn't detract from the value of the pearl. The size of a pearl—like the size of anything—is a matter of taste. And let's not forget budget. South Sea pearls are now routinely farmed to extraordinary sizes (the largest in excess of 20 millimeters). It takes a number of harvests to achieve even a single whopper; amassing enough matches for a necklace can take years.

SHAPE The accepted shapes for pearls are the perfectly symmetrical round; the slightly asymmetrical semi-round; the irregularly shaped semi-baroque; the outrageously (and, in the eye of this aficionado, gorgeously) deformed baroque; and the ridged cerclée.

SOUTH SEA PEARLS VERSUS JAPANESE PEARLS Of the cultured pearl types, the most familiar are akoya, grown off the coast of Japan. Produced (and, critics claim, manipulated after harvest by bleaching and coloring) in radiant pale colors (whites, off-whites, and pinks) and modest sizes (rarely larger than nine millimeters), these are your grandmother's pearls. Note that Tiffany is among the jewelers who consider bleaching and dyeing acceptable manipulations of South Sea and other pearls.

A WORD OF ADVICE Patronize recognized dealers. Attempts to classify pearls according to standard gemological guidelines have never really gotten off the ground. Many dealers, especially in Tahiti, will offer "certificates" or X rays, or say they will repurchase unsatisfactory pearls. Give them a pass unless you're a gambler. You'll do just as well in Papeete's market if junk pearls are all you desire.

SHOPS Tahiti Perles Centre Vaima Shopping Center, Rue Jeanne d'Arc, Papeete; 689/45-05-05, fax 689/45-32-46; [email protected] Robert Wan's luxe store. A string of incredibly luminous grays costs $60,000, an enormous sum to your average scribbler but in market terms a steal. 
Paspaley Pearls 142 King St., Sydney; 61-2/9232-7633, fax 61-2/9221-2301; [email protected] The country's most venerable dealer operates three stores in Australia with astounding selections of mounted, strung, and loose pearls.

GETTING THERE

One option is to book a pearls cruise on Radisson Seven Seas. This will take you to Tahiti and Bora-Bora, with various stops along the way. The cruises are led by jewelry designer Christopher Walling, who has made pieces for Elizabeth Taylor, São Schlumberger, and Brooke Hayward, among others. Seven-night cruises depart from Papeete on November 18 and November 25. Prices start at $2,895. Call 800/285-1835.