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Polynesian cultivators share their pearls of wisdom

The Gambier Islands provide the perfect environment for pearl farms to produce the highest-quality product

Mangarevan perle cultivateur Gabriel Teakaruto steered the motorboat across the lagoon to his family's turquoise-painted "graft house," perched on pilings above the water. Already wet-suited to tend his oysters, he looked like an amiable tiki with his Polynesian profile and ready smile.

Teakaruto's family has been pearl farming for 20 years, part of the amazing growth of the Gambier pearl industry that began in the 1970s.

As he docked, he pointed out a toothy, 10-foot-long leopard-spotted eel gliding below among the oysters. "Our guardian," he said with a grin.

The Teakarutos also run the Pension Maroi and, in an aquatic version of agritourism, take visitors out to the farm to show them how they partner with oysters to produce internationally famous pearls.

Pinctada margaritifera, the South Pacific shellfish responsible for all the fuss, has an exceptional home in the Gambiers. The reef that surrounds the islands has two openings that flush nutrients into the lagoon, which is also enriched with minerals from the mountainous islands. The oysters also benefit from the Gambiers' mild, pearl-enhancing "winter" at the southern edge of the tropics.

On the deck, cultivateurs power-washed oysters as a burly Mangarevan wedged opened shells for the graffeur, or grafter, who peered into the oyster, plucked out a lustrous pearl with a slender tool and unceremoniously dropped it into a pail of water.

Then he inserted a bigger nucleus (a small marble made of Mississippi River mussel shell) into the poche perliere, or pearl pocket, prompting the oyster to produce a second, larger pearl in another year or so.

It was mesmerizing, watching the almost monotonous process of harvesting the jewels; the cultivateurs methodically working; the steady plop, plop, plop of pearls into the bucket. Teakaruto suddenly broke my reverie. "Pick one," he said, pointing to the oysters. "Our gift."

I hesitated. It was a daunting choice: Which oyster harbored my splendid pearl? Teakaruto discarded a few puny shells before he said, "All OK — pick one." When the graffeur handed me a shimmering gray-green pearl, the cultivateurs pronounced it "a good one."


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