Alexander Collins Pearls in Takaroa, French Polynesia
The founder of a small Tahitian pearl farm talks tiny pearls and difficulties working with Mother Nature.
Pearl farming in an average year is not easy, but factor in a pandemic and the challenges are even greater. The most significant direct impediment for our farm in Takaroa, which is an hour-plus flight from Tahiti, was the lack of Chinese technicians and grafters who got stuck—and still are—in China after the 2020 Chinese New Year. As a result, our grafting output diminished by 80%. Plus, one of our main platforms for sales are the Hong Kong fairs, and they have all been canceled. To save money, we severely reduced our fuel consumption and rely almost solely on solar power.
And while most farms in Tahiti can rely on catching wild oysters for the culturing process, our farm in our atoll of Takaroa is still reeling from an ecological incident that started in 2014 and lasted through the end of 2015: a total lagoon invasion of microplankton, which turned our whole ecosystem upside down. The event killed all of our second-graft oysters, 60% of our first-graft oysters, and all the spat. The pearl colors and quality changed as well because the oysters weren’t healthy; the pearls were a washed-out gray or black with no peacocks, blues, or greens.
Plus, many species of fish and mollusks disappeared, while others prospered. One of the species of fish that prospered is the blowfish, with a powerful beak and jaws. The particularity of this fish is that it primarily consumes shellfish and mollusks; the larger the blowfish are, the more they can eat and the larger the oysters they can consume. Blowfish quickly devoured all the oysters that our lagoon produces. Added to that, hungry deep-sea sharks now freely roam the interior, which makes spearfishing a risky proposition.
Because of this event, we go the neighboring Island of Takapoto, which does not have that problem, to buy viable oysters. It’s a two-hour trip in the open ocean.
And though we harvest year-round, with wild oyster collecting typically happening from October to December, the cycles have clearly changed, and the oyster is readapting to its modified environment. I think it will take some time to renormalize; the last time we collected plentiful oysters in our lagoon was in 2011.
To combat the grafter shortage, we luckily had the foresight to train locals, so now we rely solely on them. Plus, our grafters require even more special training than at other Tahitian pearl farms because of our specialty—tiny 5 mm to 7 mm Tahitian pearls. This has been our specialty since 2013, when we were producing so many pearls that we ran out of mature oysters to graft.
At that time, we were faced with an unprecedented decision: stop grafting for three months (until age-appropriate or 9- to 10-centimeter oysters could be found) or graft smaller Tahitian pearls. This meant we needed not only smaller nuclei but also smaller knives and pincers (used to prop open oysters during nucleation), among other tools. It was a bittersweet move, but buyers ended up loving the tiny pearls! But now, niche aside, we’re in a tight spot because of lack of production and trade shows at which to sell.
Back in 2000, I was able to collect at least 1.5 million spats and was able to bring them to viable and usable sizes of great quality. At the height of our production in 2011, we were putting out 250,000 viable pearls to market every year. We are now barely producing twenty thousand pearls.
In the fall of 2020, I was able to take a trip to Europe, the U.S. and Mexico, so I was able to sell some pearls, but other than that, the 2021–2022 harvest is looking bleak. Pearl farming is dealing with nature, a fickle master. And when she wants to, she can erase in one single stroke a lifetime’s worth of work. Pearl farming is hard.
All the best, Alex
Reach Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org.