The jade-green, 55-square mile island of Taha’a isn’t as well known as its more famous neighbor, Bora Bora, but it certainly has its own seductive appeal. In Polynesia, Taha’a is celebrated as the Vanilla Island, as it produces most of Tahiti’s vanilla. It’s also the home of the five-star Le Tahaa resort and is a favorite of sailors and savvy island-hoppers for its laid-back, authentic South Pacific lifestyle. But the small gem of an island also produces some of the region’s best Tahitian pearls, those resplendent products of man’s intercession with the Pinctada Margaritifara oyster.
Coming in innumerable shades of lustrous colors such as silver, aubergine, black, green, and pink, Tahitian pearls are sought for their evocative colors, the cachet of coming from such an idyllic locale, and the skill it takes to cultivate and create a top pearl. Each Tahitian pearl represents about four years of work, including care of the oysters, which take several years to reach maturity, plus the time needed tending to the mollusk after grafting to create a high-quality pearl. My introduction to these jewels of the sea occurred while cruising in an open Jeep along a narrow strip of highway bordered by towering coconut palms. My local guide suggested I stop at a pearl farm run by the Champon family. Originally from Brittany, they have been in French Polynesia for 30 years and have been running the farm for a decade.
Greeted by the affable Madame Champon, I was first given a tour of the grafting and cultivation area – a modest cabin set on pillars above the azure sea 100 yards off the beach. After a detailed explanation on grafting, she led me back along the treacherously narrow gangway to the shore. In a comfortable home that despite the tropical surroundings still seemed indelibly French, she showed me a truly monumental cache of loose pearls and handsome designs she had created including necklaces, earrings, bracelets and belts. Settings and designs ranged from classic gold to avant-garde neoprene and stainless steel.
She laughed when I asked how many colors there are, saying the shades and tones of Tahitian pearls simply cannot be counted and no two are exactly alike, like people. Indeed, I saw samples ranging from iridescent greens to deep purples to some appearing to be pure silver (Silver and black are very popular right now in Europe she confided). She also patiently explained the various grades, ranging from Top Gem to Grade D and what defines them. And assuring me anyone can own one, she indicated prices ranged from $50,000 for a perfect Top Gem to $10 for a modest irregular pearl. Either one, she said, would be a treasured keepsake of this beautiful island. And now Champon Pearl Farm is offering online orders, so even if you can’t make it to Taha’a, you can still play South Pacific Santa Claus. Mme. Champon explained orders (shipping is free) take 5 to 10 days, depending on flights out of Papeete, so even on the chance your gift doesn’t arrive by the 25th, you’ll still have a wonderful New Year’s bauble to give that someone special, direct from one of the world’s most romantic islands.