Opening the Oyster: a Look at Tahitian Pearls

Woman in Tahitian Pearl Necklace

The legendary black pearls from Tahiti are, in reality, neither black nor Tahitian. Having first appeared on the market in the mid-1970s, the exotic and dramatic pearls have grown widely in popularity and are today French Polynesia’s largest export.

Named after Hugh Cuming, the English naturalist who first collected the species, the mollusk from which Tahitian pearls emerge is a native to Polynesia: Pinctada margaritifera cumingii. Undisturbed in the wild, the mollusk can grow over a foot in diameter and live as long as 30 years. Because the inside edge or “lip” of its shell is charcoal in color, the mollusk is commonly called the black-lipped oyster.

Tahitian pearls are not actually grown in Tahiti, which is but one of hundreds of islands that make up French Polynesia. The island lends its name to the pearls because of its importance as a regional center of commerce. Most of the pearls rather stem from the lagoons of the Tuamotu Archipelago and Gambier Islands, hundreds of miles in either direction of Tahiti.

Tahitian pearls are also not black, though they are strikingly darker than their akoya and South Sea counterparts. Tahitian pearls vary in color from metallic grey to brown, with overtones of blue, green, yellow, pink or purple. Several factors may influence pearl color, from variations within the mollusk to water salinity, temperature and nutrition.

The most common Tahitian pearl colors are referenced with special names: aubergine for pearls reflecting deep purple and grey; pistachio for yellows and greens; and peacock for a blend of rich blues, greens and greys. The luster of Tahitian pearls can approach a metallic sheen with brilliant reflection.

The diversity in color and impressive size of Tahitian pearls make them a dramatic gem to wear. Whether alone or in mixed strands, a Tahitian pearl is a unique and exotic addition to your collection.