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The Tahitian Island of Negonego

I am wrist-deep in pearls. There's an oak bucket of them freshly plucked from their oysters and recently washed. Several hundred more are drying on a nearby bath towel. Plastic bags filled with them are stacked on a table, sorted by color and size. Here are the blacks, which aren't black at all but a shimmering gunmetal. Here are the peacocks, a fugitive magenta overlaid with a viridescent sheen. Here are some in the precise shade of a 1946 DeSoto my father inherited from a great-uncle, a Sunday churchgoing car complete with running boards. The inky blue of a mussel shell, these pearls are somehow even more fathomless than the lovingly buffed finish on Uncle Reginald's automobile.

I am on Negonego, a Tahitian island in the Tuamotu Archipelago. Calling it an island may be a bit of an exaggeration: it is a scrap of coral midway between South America and Australia. Negonego is owned by a Chinese-Tahitian not unreasonably known as the emperor of Tahitian pearls. To get here requires not only the permission of this man but also a seat on his private jet. There is no security, if you don't count the French navy, which patrols the military installations of the South Pacific and also keeps pirates from sweeping down onto the remote lagoons where Tahiti's most precious crop is cultivated. A crown of coral growing atop a submerged mountain, Negonego is a rare geological formation—a natural island and lagoon. By a series of complex thermodynamic operations, deepwater nutrients rise from the ocean floor, making the Pacific here among the richest fishing grounds on earth, and also creating the conditions for phenomenal pearls. Strung across the lagoon are large bamboo rafts; otherwise there is nothing to interrupt the view to the horizon. Add to this scene Ursula Andress singing "Underneath the Mango Tree," and you could easily be on the island of Dr. No.

I am two hours' flying time from Papeete, halfway through an improbable journey around the world. When I left New York, I knew little about pearls beyond the banal fact that Mother Has Them. Actually, my own mother is no longer, as the euphemism goes, "with us," but while alive she did own some, which were of a pinkish hue and worn in the several chaste strands that were the style of her finest era, the 1950's.

Pearls, I knew, were lunar and virginal and old-fashioned and, oddly, again in fashion. After decades of being seemingly uninfluenced by changes in taste and style, they were suddenly subject to the breathless hyperbole that accompanies the big new thing. The pearl merchant Salvador Assael went so far as to place an ad in American glossies announcing: "A new gem is born." It was, in fact, the same gem, the black pearl of literary legend, that divers have for centuries been taking from the South Pacific, the very waters that inspired exoticists from the 19th-century French writer Pierre Loti to whoever it was that first wrapped Dorothy Lamour in a sarong.

In the new scheme of things, pearls are almost invariably cultured, or man-produced, and cultured pearls are no longer a mandatory pinky white. Neither are they axiomatically of a ladylike size. Cultured pearls now come in weird colors and gumball gauges. With their exotic geographic biographies attached, they are highly covetable gems. I have heard stories of million-dollar necklaces and met people with dotcom billions and steel-clad charge cards who have rather casually dropped $120,000 on, say, a string of simple grays.

The eerily beautiful black South Sea pearl has, for the moment, mounted a serious threat to the long hegemony of the traditional Japanese white. The Japanese market, meanwhile, has also suffered from competition with the Chinese, from accusations of bleaching and dyeing, and from the less easily remedied complaint that the restrained qualities of the proverbial single white strand seem best suited to prom queens or runners-up in a Miss Firecracker contest. Black is the new white, a development that will be reversed only if the Australians manage to reclaim their share of the international market with the buttery South Sea pearls they now successfully grow to the size of marbles. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

My host on negonego is robert wan, a thickset Tahitian of Chinese ancestry; a former car dealer and frozen-foods mogul; a man with intricate political connections, now widely regarded as the impresario of South Sea pearls. We are four on the island, if you don't count staff. There are, besides myself, Mr. Wan and Teva Sylvain, a photographer who has the monopoly on cheesy Tahitian postcards picturing buxom wahines, as well as a buxom wahine from Aix-en-Provence, who is wearing a bikini and a flowered lei.

A farmworker has driven us in a flatbed to the immaculate cinder-block house of Gérard Clairefond, the manager of Negonego, for a feast that could shame some of the finest chefs in the world. Laid out on a picnic table covered with a checkered plastic cloth is an enormous platter of fresh tuna sushi, prepared by Clairefond's young Tahitian wife. Lobsters from the lagoon are roasting over driftwood on an outdoor grill. Chilled Veuve Clicquot adds to the unreality of the scene. But I am becoming accustomed to some level of unreality in my pursuit of the pearl.

It began in Jaipur, India, with a friend in the jewelry business reaching into a hidden drawer and extracting from it one of those turban ornaments that princely families seem to dredge up when household finances get tight. This one was an elaborate headpiece of old-mine diamonds crowned by a ruby-tasseled doodad set with an enormous pearl. The pearl was nearly 20 millimeters, or about the size of an aggie, and not round, but the gorgeously deformed shape called baroque. It would once have been considered an incredible rarity. It was still worth a fortune, my friend explained, principally because it was a natural, rather than a cultured pearl. "But the only people who care about the difference are jewelers and collectors." He shrugged. "There are very few pearls anymore that aren't cultured. And, with the new methods, they can easily grow them and bring them to market this size."

Advances in pearl farming technology, accompanied by a certain decline in taste, have led to a market glutted with pearls so oversize as to achieve the seemingly impossible: they look fake. "The market has evolved," said Ghislain d'Humières, a jewelry expert at Christie's. "People are not satisfied anymore with simple graduated strands. They're looking for the unusual." D'Humières mentioned the orange-hued pearls of Burma, Tahitian blacks, the golden pearls of the Philippines. "Pink, green, aubergine, any color," he said. "And big."

it's harvest time on negonego. The little island is fully populated with crews of Tahitian laborers and Japanese technicians. After lunch, we are led to one of the pearling sheds. The first is a crude, open-ended structure on the lagoon, where workers in rubber aprons stand at huge tables using knives with sharp, scimitar-shaped blades to scale the young oysters as they're brought from the rafts. It's a scene as far as can be imagined from the monied hush under which most people encounter pearls. Waves bang against the pilings. Barnacles and marine trash litter the floor. The place smells like a fish market, although this doesn't seem to trouble a scroungy mutt curled up in a corner on a shell-encrusted heap of net.

Several divers in neoprene wet suits haul bushels of oysters to the worktables; from here they're transported to another station, where workers insert the oysters in mesh pockets, the whole to be returned to the ocean. A separate group of mature oysters is brought to an adjacent building for harvesting by technicians, who work in guarded cubicles using tools suggestive of a carpenter performing oral surgery.

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