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The Tahitian Island of Negonego

It is not on this visit, and not in fact for some time, that I will learn that the largest pearls are produced by oysters subject to repeat implantations. To create a pearl that would make any kind of splash in Tiffany's window, it's necessary to start with a good-sized insert, a pearl-like bead made from Mississippi mussel shell. The implants themselves are graduated in size from ball bearing to champagne grape. Jamming a 12-millimeter implant into a virgin mollusk, I learned, generally results in the death of the oyster. This helps explain why the black-pearl choker of perfectly matched 18-millimeter beads I admired at Robert Wan's shop in Papeete had required five harvests to assemble.

"For good-quality pearls, you have to have sixty percent nacre," Wan explained to me in the brass-and-plate-glass Tahiti Perles shop, an anomalous bit of Faubourg St.-Honoré tucked in among the snack wagons and tattooed island bums along the waterfront in downtown Papeete. Wan's assertion, which may have been a slight exaggeration, is based on the fact that if the nacre, the layers of calcium carbonate crystals secreted by an oyster, is poor, a pearl will form whose skin is too thin to refract, diffuse, and absorb ambient light. Worse yet, the nacre of inferior pearls can sometimes erode over time, leaving the gem with a bald spot.

I've seen them—cheap and lusterless black marbles sold at the perimeter of the municipal market in downtown Papeete. Here, amid the stalls of floral shields and plumeria leis and fleshy mangoes and straw skirts, merchants set up folding tables and put out low-grade pearls in paper cups. The cruise-ship tourists sit and sift for hours. At $10 or $20 a pearl, it's hard to resist these bargain souvenirs. And why should you?Most jewelers back home can drill and mount them, and those who know their business will probably refrain from mentioning that what you bought was not much better than what you could have gotten at a department store.

A commonplace of pearl vending is the trader's advice to "see for yourself." My dealer friend in Jaipur framed the issue slyly: "Choosing a pearl is a matter of personal taste," he says. "You apply rational standards, but what good are they ultimately?It's like falling in love with a woman. You just fall in love. You don't ask the weight of her bones."

That pearls, in fact, are not like other commodities was illustrated to me once in the office of David Norman, scion of a pearl-trading dynasty. I'd flown to Australia to see this ruddy, tall dealer with a great beak of a nose. Seated at a desk covered with necklaces of immense South Sea pearls tangled in trays, Norman reached into a drawer and removed a rare book.

The 19th-century volume, called Au Jardin des Gemmes, was addressed to an imaginary reader, and seemed written in a kind of Balzacian swoon. "The necklace which you are wearing, Madam, this necklace whose iridescence illumines your beauty, is full of mystery and terror, to a greater degree than any other wonder of the world . . . bought, resold, having been the means, perhaps, of saving their ruined owner from death, exhibited in jewelers' windows, carried about in brokers' wallets, sometimes stolen and the center of a journalistic agitation in the papers which carry the news to all corners of the world—in wearing these pearls you are wearing a fragment of the history of humanity."

Symbolically, at least, you might think of the necklace as a placeholder on a long human connection to pearls, a history that most likely began in the ancient pearling beds of the Persian Gulf and was carried on in every place where water meets shore. The aesthetic lure of a pearl requires no explanation. But there's another kind of allure in pearls, an attraction I think of as metaphoric. Formed as a kind of biological protest to invasion, a pearl is made in much the same way as identity is. First you have the initial irritation, that single angry grain of sand. Afterward, the layers start to form.

Through the open shed door we can see the workers' concrete houses. "It's a little like slaveage," photographer Teva Sylvain says in fractured English. The sky has turned slaty and an onshore wind suddenly whips the lagoon waves into stiff little peaks. "So," Robert Wan says, "do you want to see what all this work is for?"

Without waiting for a reply, he strides toward a separate building, where the harvested pearls are sorted and stored. The farm manager, Gérard Clairefond, leads us into a small building with fluorescent lighting and linoleum floors. There is a crude map of the island, looking like a misshapen Lifesaver. There are small oaken barrels through which water is pumped and the pearls rolled clean. There is also a conspicuous absence: no sign of a safe. When Clairefond empties a pouch containing hundreds of pearls onto a terry-cloth towel in the harvest shed at Negonego, everyone in our small group of visitors falls silent.

It's hard to see this amazing trove without thinking of Aladdin's cave, of kings' ransoms, of treasure caskets, of piratical plunder. The gems on the table might be worth millions of dollars on the world market. Sorted and matched and drilled and strung, they will one day turn up at Harry Winston and Tiffany and Chaumet. And they will play their part, as the author of Au Jardin des Gemmes knew, in narratives of love and betrayal and seduction and violence and greed.

Newly emerged from the ocean, the gems seem exquisitely neutral, a scattering of amazing lustrous spheres. At first they're more difficult to differentiate than beads of caviar. But then the eye adjusts. Each of us in the shed begins touching the pearls, rolling them across the towel's white surface. Favorites emerge. They're the ones of exceptional color or those with a luster that seems to draw you in. "The more the play of color, the better the pearl," says Wan, plucking out an enormous peacock-colored gem. "Follow the light," he adds. "If the light stops too soon, a pearl is dead."

The best pearls, such as this one, appear to magnetize light by a process whose prosaic explanation (a kind of prismatic ricochet occurs amid the sharp-edged crystals of calcium carbonate) tends to cheat the pearl of something ineffable. There is no shortage of overripe rapture to be found in literature about pearls, and no dearth either of myth and legend and parable. I've sometimes felt that far too much magic is invested in a bead birthed by an oyster's indigestions. But suddenly, here in the middle of the South Pacific, I don't think that anymore.

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