Black Pearls​—Gems From the South Seas


“Workers required for pearl farm in Manihiki,” read an ad in the “Cook Islands News.” You may wonder, ‘How are pearls farmed? And where is Manihiki, anyway?’

MANIHIKI, a remote atoll, is one of 15 islands collectively called the Cook Islands, located 1,600 miles [2,600 km] northeast of New Zealand. In the early 1970’s, according to some sources, experiments with black pearl cultivation began there. Today dozens of commercially successful black pearl farms dot the lagoons of Manihiki.

Black pearl farming requires manual work, but technical expertise is also a must. The process begins with a careful selection of suitable black lip oysters. Those chosen are gently opened, and the oyster’s flesh is skillfully cut with a scalpel. A small spherical nucleus, or bead, is then implanted along with a tiny piece of tissue from a living donor’s mantle, the lining on the inside of the shell. Then workers return the oysters to the lagoon and carefully maintain them, purging any buildup of algae or barnacles.

Gradually, the implanted mantle tissue envelops the nucleus and coats it layer by layer with a lustrous pearly substance called nacre or mother-of-pearl. If the implant is not rejected, a pearl is produced within one and a half to two years. The whole process has been called “a remarkable symbiosis of man and nature.”

 Black Pearls​—Their Value

The South Pacific black pearl is among the world’s rarest pearls, hence it is among the most valuable. Actually, black pearls come in a range of vibrant colors, from silvery white to jet black. Some are rose, gold, bronze, copper, peacock green, blue, purple, or variations of glistening gray. You can even find combinations of colors, such as pink/rose, green/gold, green/black, blue/black, and purple/black.

When the value of a pearl is being determined, one hue is not necessarily more valuable than another. What really enhances the quality of an individual pearl is the evenness or consistency of its color. There are other factors that can determine a pearl’s worth​—its size, shape, surface, and luster.

When a jeweler speaks of a pearl’s size, he is referring to its diameter. The usual range is between 8 and 12 millimeters, with rare specimens reaching 18 millimeters or more. Although size is not the most significant factor, the pearl’s price is, generally speaking, commensurate with its weight or dimensions.

As with color, the shapes are varied. Usually, round, or spherical, pearls are the most highly prized. However, drop, or tear-shaped, gems make beautiful pendants and earrings. There are also circle pearls, those with distinct rings or grooves encircling them. If you hear of a button-shaped pearl, that relates to its having one side rounded and the other flat. Then, too, there are baroques, those of irregular shape.

A pearl with a completely unblemished surface is rare and costly. External flaws, which are common, may be in the form of depressions, bumps, wrinkles, scratches, spots, or stains​—all occurring naturally. If the flaws are few in number or restricted as to location, it may be possible to conceal them when the pearl is placed in an ornamental setting.

What you will certainly notice is the pearl’s luster, which is dependent upon the thickness of its nacre. Another consideration is the gem’s iridescence, or light-reflecting quality, which gives the pearl its alluring warmth. Some argue that it is the luster​—more than the color, size, shape, or surface—​that generates admiring glances.

Pearls Require Care

In contrast with other precious gems, such as diamonds or rubies, pearls are referred to as “soft.” They can be scratched by contact with other jewelry or hard objects. So if you have pearls, take care when wearing or storing them.

Acid, including that found in human perspiration, can cause damage, as can detergents, perfumes, and other cosmetics. A major Cook Islands jeweler recommends the following cleaning procedure: “Mix a solution of water and mild dishsoap in a small bowl. Agitate the water with a soft toothbrush, and lightly scrub the setting and the pearl. Rinse with fresh water, and dry with a soft cloth.”

Pearls in History

Pearls were among the earliest of the precious gems used as human adornment, being praised in ancient literature. People in the Middle East and Asia especially treasured them, apparently viewing pearls as symbols of purity and virtue.

In ancient Rome, pearls were so highly esteemed that only people of certain rank were permitted to wear them. Pliny the Elder, a first-century naturalist and philosopher, extolled pearls as “the most sovereign commodity in the whole world.” And when illustrating the preciousness of the Kingdom of the heavens, Jesus spoke of “one pearl” of such value that a traveling merchant seeking fine pearls “promptly sold all the things he had and bought it.”​—Matthew 13:45, 46.

Jesus’ reference to pearls no doubt reflects both their beauty and value. How thankful we can be to Jehovah, the Creator of these gems, including those found in the South Seas!

[Pictures on page 26]

Black pearls (enlarged to show detail)