Some say diamonds are a girl’s best friend… But my favorite is and will always be pearls! They go with everything, from jeans and a white tee to your most special occasion gown. They’re a staple for any girl from the American South, but they’re also special to me because of my time in Japan, where pearls were first cultivated. I’m not afraid to admit that pearls are my jewel of choice.
And for anyone visiting French Polynesia, you’ll inevitably hear about the rare and beautiful Tahitian black pearls. They’re not cheap, they’re not for everyone, but if you want a unique piece of jewelry to bring home to remember your trip to paradise, you also want to know what you’re looking at right? So I decided to pull together some quick facts and tips for pearl shopping in the Islands of Tahiti. I hope it helps you find the pearls of your dreams!
Why are pearls special?
Pearls have been around since the first grain of sand found its way into a mollusk. For thousands of years, pearls were very rare, making them attainable only for royalty and the extremely wealthy. They could reliably be found in only a few regions, including the Persian Gulf, off the cost of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), China, Japan, South and Central America, Polynesia, and the rivers of Europe.
As recently as 1893, Kokichi Mikimoto of Japan cultivated pearls for the first time ever. When cultured pearls came on the scene, pearl jewelry became accessible to women around the world. While quality natural pearls are still valuable, their widespread availability means that you, too, can have a piece of jewelry that, for centuries, has symbolized the moon, offered protection from fire and dragons, and signified purity and modesty of its wearer.
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Why are Tahitian pearls different?
The difference between Tahitian pearls and pearls from anywhere else in the world is the range of colors. Most pearls come in white or cream hues–they go with everything and are the definition of “classic.” Tahitian pearls, however, are also known as “black pearls.” They come in all shades from dark gray (almost black) to silvery gray, plus purples, greens, blues, and reddish shades as well. They’re only found in the waters around Polynesia and are made inside of black-lipped oysters there.
Aside from the color, Tahitian pearls also take longer to “make.” For instance, Akoya pearls take eight months to cultivate. Tahitian pearls take an average of 18 months!
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What makes a “good” pearl?
Just like with any other gemstone, there are certain characteristics that pearls possess that classify their monetary value. Here are the terms and qualities to know so you can know what you’re looking at, know what the jeweler you’re talking to is trying to explain, and know whether or not you’re setting yourself up for a good deal!
Classic pearls are spherical, but they also come in lovely “tear drop” or “pear” shapes. If they have ridges or ripples in them, they’ll generally be less expensive. Sometimes you’ll find a uniquely-shaped (some would say “misshapen”) pearl in a custom setting that compliments it. Don’t be afraid to branch out!
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As with most things, bigger equates to “better!” Or at least more expensive. Larger pearls are more difficult to find, so they’re also more difficult to create multi-pearl pieces with, such as strings of pearl necklaces and bracelets. This makes pieces using large pearls more expensive. If you find a necklace with many large pearls, especially of the same large size, it will be more expensive than a string of pearls that are smaller or that gradually taper in size.
This is where Tahitian pearls are truly unique! Tahitian pearls range from almost black to light gray or silvery, with green, blue, and purple hues in between. Generally, the darker pearls are more expensive, but a very high-quality pearl that’s not as dark may be more expensive than a darker pearl. It’s all about what you prefer and what’s worth it to you.
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The surface of a pearl will show signs of wear over time, so the smoother and less “blemished” your pearl, the longer it will continue to look as beautiful as it did when you found it. Some settings can hide less perfect spots, which is helpful. In general, look for pearls with no discoloration or spots.
This is where pearls truly “shine!” The more reflective or shiny the pearl, the better. The reflection should be bright and “sharp,” not diffused or dull. Once a pearl starts to lose its luster, it doesn’t come back, so make sure yours is starting strong.
Despite the rigorous process that creates them, pearls are very delicate. The thicker the nacre surface, the stronger and more durable the pearl. This is related to luster as well.
For more about pearls, take a look at the Gemological Institute of America’s Pearl Information.
A Note on “Tattoo Pearls”
This is something I didn’t know about until I started shopping around on Mo’orea. If a pearl, especially a larger or well-colored pearl, has too many imperfections, designers will cut tiki designs into it. These are the traditional tattoo designs you’ll see on locals in the islands, and in fact, they say the art of tattooing was created here in French Polynesia! I love that this ties the pearls and Tahitian designs together. However, I also love the symbolism of taking something “imperfect” and making it truly special and unique.
The Bottom Line
However if you love it, it’s a great pearl! Maybe you like the lighter or multi-hued pearls. Maybe the odd-shaped pearl speaks to you. Or maybe you simply prefer a single pearl pendant instead of a longer strand in necklace or bracelet form. If you think a less stereotypically beautiful pearl is the most beautiful, it’s the one for you!
Where can you find Tahitian pearls?
You will find pearl shops throughout French Polynesia. They’ll be in hotel shops, boutiques, even roadside stands! Mo’orea has the largest selection of pearl shops in the islands, but you won’t have any trouble finding them on the other islands as well. So, look around, do a little window shopping, and compare prices if it helps you make a decision you’re happy with. As long as you leave with a pearl piece (or two!) that you love, you really can’t go wrong!
If you’re looking for some recommendations, the shops I liked best were Pearls & More in Maharepa, Pearl Romance at the Sofitel Hotel, and Herman Perles near Hauru. These shops had the best prices on the best pearls, and they were very kind, as well as knowledgeable! Every salesperson was eager to let me try on their pearl pieces, but no one made me feel uncomfortably pressured, unlike other shops I visited.
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Tips for Choosing Your Favorite Pearl
Now that you know what you’re looking at and what makes a good one, here are a few tips I picked up in my own shopping experiences!
Have a Budget and Know What You Want (But Be Flexible)
Start with a price range that you can truly afford, and know what you’re looking for. Do you want earrings, a necklace, a ring, or a bracelet? Would a pendant in your price range please you instead of a long strand of pearls that’s over your budget?
Or maybe you’re more interested in a particular color or shape, and you don’t have a specific piece in mind. Are you looking for a drop shape in a purple hue, or would you prefer perfectly round in a dark, silvery gray shade? It’s all down to what you want most, and what you’re willing and able to pay for it.
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Look for the Luster
Pearls are meant to shine. A good pearl practically radiates light, so look for the brightest one. A dull pearl may seem more affordable, but it will only look more dull or tired over time. Will you still love it in a few years?
Look for the Flaws
I am the last person to tell you to look for flaws in anyone or anything under normal circumstances, but when it comes to jewelry, and pearls in particular, it’s important to take note of small marks or imperfections that will only be highlighted over time. I tried on a beautiful, long string of large pearls from a souvenir shop, and while it was under $1,000 USD, it was not good quality. The pearls were dull, they were all pock-marked, and very few were actually round.
If you’re going to spend that kind of money, spend it on something high-quality. Look at getting a pendant instead of a string of pearls. Get a necklace with five well-placed pearls instead of an opera length strand. Look at bracelets or rings instead. Don’t limit yourself so much that you end up with buyer’s remorse by the time you get home.
Ask where the pearls came from. Some pearl sellers have their own dedicated pearl farm! Ask for recommendations. Let the sales person know your budget. Ask what they think is the piece with the best value. Can they explain why there is a price difference in the two pieces you’ve narrowed yourself down to? Ask as many questions as you can think of to help you decide!
Do You See Yourself Wearing It?
This is the real test. Would you really ever wear an $8,000 USD necklace, or are you better off with a pair of earrings instead? You love the unique colors, but do they go with the clothes you have at home? Maybe you like the elegant look of a long string of pearls, but your active lifestyle is more suited to a beautiful tattoo pearl on a leather necklace or bracelet instead. Pearls love to be worn, so don’t buy something you’ll only end up keeping in a box at the back of your closet!
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Try Before You Buy
This is the fun part! Try it on, see how it looks, and make sure you can work the closure on your own, too. Look at them on yourself in natural light to see the difference from artificial light indoors. How does it feel on you? And most importantly, make sure you really love it when you wear it!
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Want more about the Mo’orea and French Polynesia? Check out my dedicated French Polynesia Page!
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