I'm big on bringing home souvenirs that will remind me of the places I've seen and loved. I have toted back saffron and Turkish delight from the spice market in Istanbul, leather gloves from Florence and plumeria oil from Hawaii.
So when I finally made it to Tahiti and its sister islands in French Polynesia, I was determined to come home with something equally memorable and considerably more precious – black pearls.
I knew from the start that a string of perfectly matched Tahitian pearls was going to be way out of my budget. But I was determined to make an educated purchase, which is why I headed to the Robert Wan Pearl Museum in Tahiti's capital, Papeete, on the first day of my trip.
That's where I discovered the terms "black pearls" and "Tahitian pearls," which are used interchangeably, are both misnomers. In colour, they range from dusky purple and green to silver and gold, and are never really black; the closest you'll find is a dark slate grey. And they're not actually from Tahiti, but from islands further afield in French Polynesia, specifically the coral-rich Tuamotu and Gambier archipelagos.
There, black-rimmed Pinctada margaritifera, commonly known as black-lip pearl oysters, are painstakingly seeded by hand and left in the ocean for 18 months to two years before the pearl can be harvested. Of 100 oysters, only seven or eight will produce a coveted round pearl. And just one or two will have the smooth surface, size, colour and lustre to make them top-quality specimens.
That explains the budget-busting cost of high-end black pearls. Adjoining the museum, which is free to the public, is the Robert Wan jewellery store. There, a strand of large, uniformly round pearls can cost more than $200,000.
I was particularly taken with a pair of iridescent green drop earrings, set in white gold filigree with diamonds and priced at $14,000. But my rule of thumb is that if something costs that much, I should be able to drive it home.
I did not expect to find a bargain on pearls at the Brando, the posh and pricey new resort on the island of Tetiaroa. Still, not far from a $100,000 necklace of soft purple and pink pearls at the resort's jewellery boutique, Hinerva, I spotted a bracelet with a single, imperfect black pearl on a strand of silk for just $14. It reminded me a little too much of the string bracelets I made at summer camp, though, so I passed.
A few days later, at the Four Seasons resort in Bora Bora, I stopped into the Tahia pearl store, named for owner and Moorea native Tahia Haring. After fingering an $18,000 strand in shades of silver, gold and purple, I considered a greyish pearl pendant priced at a more reasonable $65. Ultimately, I decided it wasn't quite what I was looking for.
Back in Papeete for the last day of my trip, I knew it was now or never if I wanted to bring home this special souvenir. On a side street near the city's public market, I found Mihiarii Pearls, where you can run your fingers through trays of loose pearls and pick your own for between $10 and $20 each. This was more my speed.
I chose two greenish-purple pearls, more pear-shaped than round, and left them to be set in a pair of sterling silver earrings. A couple of hours later, I picked up my $72 keepsake.
When I wear them, I'll be transported to the turquoise waters of French Polynesia. I wouldn't trade my car for that, but it's certainly worth the price of a tank of gas.
The cost of a Tahitian pearl is decided by its size, quality and shape. For the highest-quality pearls, make sure your purchase comes with a certificate of authenticity and origin.
Size: The average size is 9 to 12 millimetres. Pearls of larger sizes – up to 17 mm – can take years to grow, and therefore cost much more.
Quality: Pearls are graded according to lustre and how many imperfections mar the surface. Grade A pearls have imperfections on less than 10 per cent of their surface, and a high lustre. On the low end of the scale, imperfections cover about half of grade D pearls, which have little reflective quality.
Shape: The ultimate Tahitian pearl is almost perfectly round: It's estimated only about 5 per cent fit this criteria. Other shapes include semi-round, semi-baroque (drop, oval, pear and button) and baroque (completely asymmetrical). Least valuable are ringed pearls.
The writer travelled courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme. It did not review or approve this article.