Having been involved in the Tahitian pearl industry for more than 50 years, Robert Wan is a name synonymous with black pearls. Wan was born in Tahiti, the son of a Chinese businessman who moved to French Polynesia at the turn of the 20th century.
Wan invested in Mangareva, the largest of the Gambier islands, in the early 1970s before buying it from Tahitian pearl pioneer Jean-Claude Brouillet 10 years later. Wan has never stopped investing in the business of black pearls—a fact for which devotees are thankful. The most significant markets for Wan’s finished jewelry sales are the United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong, and Tahiti, while loose pearl sales are abundant in China, Hong Kong, and Japan.
Today, the crown jewel of his operations is the South Marutea atoll in the Tuamotu group of islands in French Polynesia. Insiders speak highly of the pearls from that area, and European jewelry brand Gellner unveiled a Marutea-branded jewelry line, in partnership with Wan, earlier this year.
Below, Wan dishes more on his beloved gem and adding an important virtual aspect to sales.
Why do you love Tahitian pearls?
I have centered my life around black pearls since we discovered them in the early 1970s. Given that it is the only Polynesian gem, we ought to love it. I also love the social aspect—getting to meet interesting individuals along the journey. The springboard of the industry was around the 1980s, but it accelerated in the 1990s. Unfortunately, every crisis has affected the pearl industry, so we have frequently looked for solutions. This means reinvention to move forward.
Tell me about your farm operations.
We have two farms, one in the Tuamotu archipelago and the other in the Gambier islands. I employed about 700 people in the 1990s, 300 in the 2000s, and now they are short of 200 due to the [coronavirus] crisis. We had to reduce our costs as a tough decision amid Covid-19. The Chinese grafters have gone as low as the minimum (some were stranded in China because of Covid). It is good to have enough inventory to take us through the season and more for future demands.
Our pearl family is built on the fact that I treat all my employees with appreciation, trust, and respect. This gives them a sense of belonging, which forms the motivation for their excellent work. I have also poured a lot of effort and dedication into every project, plus I always have the determination to create gorgeous jewelry and flawless pearls. These, too, raise the bar of excellence among my employees.
How do your farms differ from others in Tahiti?
Climatic conditions under which our pearls are created differ from anything else in the world. The waters in the South Marutea atoll are 50 meters deep and are rich in minerals for the oyster beds, creating an ample environment for crafting and flourishing the pearls. They have a sensational quality, are rich in color, and quite large in size. Our pearls come in different shapes and sizes as the environment favors the complexity of Tahitian pearls. We harbor our expertise in high-quality and big-sized pearls, ranging from 15 mm to 17 mm. The round shapes account for at least 40 percent of total production.
Tell me about your virtual pearl auctions.
Although there are currently no physical auctions due to the deteriorating health situation, we have opened up a virtual alternative to regular house buyers and provided a platform for new stakeholders. We had two sessions this year, one in June and another in October. Such a move emphasizes the importance of digital in business, and we aim to turn this platform into our central growth axis. Different buyers across the globe will have access to various pearls based on shapes, colors, sizes, luster, and quality in one click and a fast onboarding/registration process. [Live auctions in Tahiti and Hong Kong will resume when Covid-19 restrictions ease.]
We need to sell our products, savoir-faire, and credibility globally, rightfully. It is no doubt that Tahitian pearls are fascinating, plus their elegance is unique in terms of luster and colors. They are a gem, and the work was worth it.