In French Polynesia, black pearls (and purple, green, and pink pearls, too) can be purchased everywhere from Papeete’s Pearl Museum to a working pearl farm.
Tahitian black pearls are legendary, coveted by royalty from Cleopatra to European monarchs. In French Polynesia, pearl prices can range from less than a dollar for an asymmetrical small pearl to more than $10,000 for a flawless large one. And of course, there’s a wide variety of pearls and prices in between.
Learning About Tahitian Black Pearls
Start an education in the history and culture of black pearls In Tahiti’s capital city, Papeete. The Musee de la Perle Robert Wan (named after a pioneer in the local peal industry) is located on the main drag along the harbor. It has a fascinating exhibit of black pearls through history, as well as spectacular pearl necklaces for sale – some of which cost as much as a basic suburban American house. Don’t worry, though: the museum shop also offers gems more in line with the average traveler’s budget.
Displays include the history of the pearl farming, starting with free-divers, and moving through the centuries to today’s careful care and feeding of the cultured pearls that fill both high-end boutiques and shanty tourist shops. Visitors can learn how shell fragments from Mississippi River clams are used, how the pearl seeds are inserted into the oyster, and how the finished pearls are graded for quality – an important lesson for those contemplating a major purchase.
Where to Buy Tahitian Black Pearls: Pearl Farms, Boutiques, and Tourist Stands
Passengers cruising in French Polynesia on one of the itineraries offered by Princess or Regent (the only two major cruise lines operating in French Polynesia) will have plenty of opportunities to see how Tahitian black pearls are cultivated. Cruises offer passengers the chance to sign up for a shore-excursions to visit a pearl farm. On the island of Raitea, one pearl farm is a tippy wooden platform in the middle of a picturesque bay. Visitors arrive via a small boat, hop onto the wooden platform, and can then watch every step of the process, not to mention purchase the finished product.
There is no end to the number of boutiques that sell pearls, and the jewelry on offer ranges from multi-thousand dollar behemoth necklaces to simple beads on a string that sell for a few dollars each. It’s even possible to buy unworked pearls and beads. Visitors disembarking from cruise ships at any of the French Polynesian islands will see table-top shops right next to the port. Take time to walk around a little to get a feel for the variety of shops and merchandise. In Papeete, Tahiti, you’ll find most of the higher-end boutiques on the main drag along the waterfront.
Evaluating the Quality of Tahitian Black Pearls
The quality (and therefore price) of black pearls is based on several factors: size, lustre, color, shape, thickness of the outer shell, and imperfections. Visitors serious about buying black pearls (a major piece rather than a tourist trinket) should educate themselves first. For instance, residents of major U.S. and European cities might check out prices at fine boutiques at home first, just to have a benchmark and a sense of the range of pearls available. The staff at Papeete’s Pearl Museum will answer questions, and of course, visitors will pick up the lingo when visiting the pearl farms.
Two final notes: Most jewelry shops (even fine ones) offer a “discount” on pearls. If they don’t, ask. Haggling is not acceptable generally in French Polynesian stores, but a polite request for a discount is. Keep the receipt and be sure you get a TVA form, which is used to apply for a refund of the value added tax (TVA) when leaving the country.