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The History of Tahitian Pearls

Tahitian pearls, the pearls produced by the Pinctada margaritifera oysters located throughout the lagoons and atolls of French Polynesia, are some of the most unusually colored and, reports the Pearl Paradise website, some of the most sought-after pearls in the world. From their beginnings in Tahitian folk legends to their near extinction and later development into a booming pearl-farming business, Tahitian pearl history is an integral part of the history of the entire French Polynesia region.

Tahitian Pearl Legends

Although European explorers noted the existence of pearl oysters in the Polynesian islands in the early 1700s, the Perles de Tahiti website notes that pearls–particularly the characteristically dark Tahitian pearls–had been a staple part of Polynesian legend for generations. According to Polynesian mythology recorded on both the Perles de Tahiti and American Pearl sites, the first pearls were brought to earth as gifts from the god of war and peace, Oro. Oro was said to use rainbows to travel to visit mortal women and to use those rainbows to color the pearls he gave them as tokens of his love.

Tahitian Pearl Trading

Between the early 1700s and the late 1800s, Europeans were wild over pearls, and the demand for Tahitian pearls became particularly intense, says the Perles de Tahiti website. Many members of Russian and European royal families, including Catherine the Great and the French Empress Eugenie, had long strings of black pearl necklaces, while the crown jewels of many of these countries boasted Tahitian pearls in a prominent display. According to the American Pearl website, the largest population of the Tahitian pearl oysters were located on the French Polynesian islands of Gambier and Tuamotu. Both were harvested so heavily, the Pinctada margaritifera oyster nearly went extinct.

Back From Extinction

When France took over the islands of the region in 1880, they put strict conservation guidelines into place to prevent the pearl-producing oysters from completely dying out and to allow the oyster population sufficient time to recover.

Tahitian Pearl Farming

Throughout the late 1800s and the early to mid 1960s, Tahitian pearls were collected and harvested much as they had always been, from their naturally occurring beds within the French Polynesian lagoons. In 1961, however, Jean-Marie Dormand conducted research with a pearl oyster technician from Japan and, together, the two succeeded in producing the first cultured Tahitian pearls within the lagoons of Bora Bora and Hikueru in 1965. A year later, a privately owned Tahitian pearl farm was opened by Jacques and Hubert Rosenthal on another cluster of French Polynesian islands. The Black Moon Pearls website reports that, by 1996, Tahitian pearl farms were producing $152 million worth of Tahitian pearls.

Tahitian Pearl Designation

In the early 1960s, the World Jewelry Confederation, also known as the CIBJO, was created to determine international rules on what constitutes good jewelry trade practices and to specifically define the types of different sorts of gems, including pearls. According to the Perles de Tahiti site, the CIBJO defined a Tahitian cultured pearl as pearls exclusively cultured from graftings of French Polynesian Pinctada margaritifera oysters. The pearls must also be produced within a set portion of the French Polynesian Islands. Although pearls from these oysters are cultured in other areas, such as Australia or Vietnam, they cannot be officially designated as Tahitian pearls.

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