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It’s not every day that you find yourself teetering in a narrow wooden outrigger canoe, about to free dive for a black pearl in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But here I am, surrounded by the sharp emerald slopes of Bora Bora’s mountains, staring into the cobalt water: home to a bounty of dusky pearls deep below its calm surface. “Un, deux, trois,” my guide urges, as I slide myself, flippers first, into the warm water.
In French Polynesia, 118 small islands and islets are scattered like confetti across 2,000 kilometers of ocean. They’re all grouped into one of five main archipelagos, with the Society Islands containing some of the most well-known areas of French Polynesia—and for good reason.
With almost always-glorious weather and elegant resorts stilted over crystal-clear lagoons, it’s hard to resist the lure of the Society Islands. But as I learned during a recent nine-day visit, no matter how enchanting the scenery might be, to really experience French Polynesia in all its beauty is to seek out the country’s most precious souvenir: the legendary black pearl.
When I say legendary, it’s not for dramatic effect. Today, several French Polynesian myths still swirl around the black pearl—the most famous being that, once upon a time, Oro, the god of peace and fertility, presented an extraordinary pearl to the Princess of Bora Bora as a token of his love. As the story goes, Oro came down to earth by riding on a rainbow of dark colors. Those very colors—iridescent shades of rich emerald, aubergine, and chestnut—entered the shell of the black-lipped oyster, creating a pearl that are not found anywhere else on earth.
Whatever the case, it’s undeniable that there’s something magical about these dark beauties, which explains why the production of cultured black pearls is the second most important economic activity in the country, only after tourism. Shimmering with gentle luster and cool to the touch, the cherished gems today are formed when pearl farmers introduce a foreign nuclei (derived from mussel shells from, of all places, the Mississippi River) into French Polynesia’s native black-lipped oyster. Over time, usually about eighteen months, the nuclei becomes coated in nacre until a black pearl is formed. This is a process that dates back to 1893, when Japanese pearl cultivator Kokichi Mikimoto pioneered the technique.
Interestingly, to call French Polynesia’s pearls “black” is commonly accepted but actually a misnomer, as a deep slate gray is the darkest the pearls ever become. As I learned during my visit, color is just a matter of preference—it’s the pearl’s size, shape, and luster that really denotes quality and price. As you’d expect, the larger the pearl, the more valuable, with sizes typically ranging from 8mm to 14mm. As for shape, perfectly round pearls are considered to be the most precious but it really all comes down to luster, which ideally should be bright and sharp with a mirror-like reflection.
Just take it from Richard Wan, the grandson of famed pearl pioneer Robert Wan, who now helms the Robert Wan jewelry store and pearl museum in Papeete. “French Polynesia is known for its warm population, its flaming colors, and a peaceful lifestyle,” he says. “Our pearls have all the best qualities of our islands and when you bring one home, you’re spreading the country’s warmth.”
As the capital of Tahiti and home to Fa'a'ā International Airport and Air Tahiti Nui, Papeete is usually the first stop on a French Polynesia itinerary, and is a prime hub for black pearl shopping. Begin at Robert Wan, which is the world’s only museum dedicated to black pearls. There, you can familiarize yourself with the jewel’s rich history, and also discover the breadth of choices when it comes to shopping for them, which, at Robert Wan, range from a leather and pearl bracelet ($35) to a necklace strung with perfectly round pistachio-hued pearls ($150,000).
While in Papeete, also be sure to make time for a stop at Les Marches, the city’s central market, where you’ll find a riot of colorful activity. On the ground floor, pause to admire tables lined with wooden ukuleles, coconut-infused monoi oil, and fresh fruits and vegetables like crunchy purple cabbage from Moorea and sweet bananas from Huahine. Then take the escalator to the second-level mezzanine, which brims with pearl shops and Polynesian handicrafts. A standout is the Hiro Ou Wen jewelry shop, where traditional mother-of-pearl materials meet contemporary design with dramatic necklaces, cuffs, and rings (from $400 to $4,000). Named for its owner and designer, Hiro Ou Wen spent 17 years at the Museum of Tahiti before creating his own modern adaptations of French Polynesian jewelry. Today, in addition to helming his label, he’s the go-to designer for the Miss Tahiti pageant crowns.
If you’re looking to experience a quieter, more traditional French Polynesia, hop on a puddle jumper from Tahiti to Bora Bora via Air Tahiti. Some prefer to take the scenic route, hiring a private boat from Tahiti Yacht Charter, which allows you to customize an itinerary with stops to snorkel, hike, and visit various pearl farms as you leisurely sail the stretch of sea between French Polynesia’s most popular islands. Be sure to visit the lesser-known Tahaa, most famed for its fragrant vanilla pods and home to the Champon Pearl Farm, where you can watch the artistic workmanship involved in black pearl cultivation. And don’t leave without following the sandy path to Champon’s beachy farmhouse for a little shopping.
Next stop: Bora Bora, an elegant island marked by five-star hotels and the iconic Mt. Otemanu, a rugged volcanic peak that, upon your first glimpse, will be etched in your mind forever. It’s a perfect finale on a Society Islands tour for both shopping and diving for your very own black pearl. At Hinerava, located inside the Intercontinental Bora Bora, designer Kelly Bailey de Rham combines black pearls with bright gemstones. “Pearls shouldn’t be for grandmothers. We want our pieces to be modern, delicate, and wearable,” says manager Stephane Ropp, before placing a dainty diamond starfish and pearl necklace around my neck ($2,429). Meanwhile, at the Four Seasons Bora Bora, guests can sip champagne and listen to the soothing sounds of the ukulele while shopping at the hotel’s Tahia Pearl store.
After all this shopping and history lessons, there’s only one thing left to do: dive in. For USD $300, Bora Pearl Company arranges pearl dives that allow you to keep whatever you bring to the surface—no matter how valuable the pearl.
As I stand on that narrow outrigger canoe, ready to jump, the 22 lines that harvest the black-lipped oysters sway peacefully in the current. They begin just below the surface, reaching down another 15 feet. If you’re anything like me, your chest might begin to tingle as you stare into the deep.
The water is murky and the oysters are slippery. My mouth tastes like rubber and salt and my mask is crooked. I grab the first oyster I can hold onto and wildly swim to the surface. I bob in place, clutching the slimey mollusk, grinning. Just call me Oro, I think.
Back on dry land, my guide pries open my oyster to reveal a 9.4 mm blue-green pearl, and I’ll later be given a certificate that details its size, shape, and color. I look for the warmth Richard Wan described to me back in Tahiti, now understanding just what he meant: My luminescent black pearl seems to shimmer as brightly as French Polynesia.