The selection of black South Sea pearls in Tahiti is, not surprisingly, unmatched elsewhere. It's reason enough to make a trip. And the hugely negotiable prices (even at luxury stores) begin a third lower than at comparable places outside French Polynesia. Australian South Sea cultured pearls are farmed in the waters off the Australian coast. Of the colors available—gold, white, silver, and rose—the pink-hued pearls are to my mind the loveliest.
At a typical size of 12 millimeters, South Sea pearls are costly, of course. Yet, thanks in part to a strong U.S. dollar, they're a bargain when bought in Australia or Tahiti. Below, what you need to know before you buy.
THE LOOK The essential value of any pearl lies in its ability to absorb, refract, and reflect light. These three attributes combine to create what's called orient—the iridescence and, some would say, inner glow of a pearl. The deeper the luster, the finer the orient, the better the pearl. It's that simple. In determining pearl quality, the rule of thumb is to consider orient, size, shape, and surface. When you place two strings of pearls alongside each other, it should be easy to tell from the luster which has the finer gems.
SURFACE AND SIZE Aside from serious blemishes (easily seen with the naked eye), irregularity is to be expected and doesn't detract from the value of the pearl. The size of a pearl—like the size of anything—is a matter of taste. And let's not forget budget. South Sea pearls are now routinely farmed to extraordinary sizes (the largest in excess of 20 millimeters). It takes a number of harvests to achieve even a single whopper; amassing enough matches for a necklace can take years.
SHAPE The accepted shapes for pearls are the perfectly symmetrical round; the slightly asymmetrical semi-round; the irregularly shaped semi-baroque; the outrageously (and, in the eye of this aficionado, gorgeously) deformed baroque; and the ridged cerclée.
SOUTH SEA PEARLS VERSUS JAPANESE PEARLS Of the cultured pearl types, the most familiar are akoya, grown off the coast of Japan. Produced (and, critics claim, manipulated after harvest by bleaching and coloring) in radiant pale colors (whites, off-whites, and pinks) and modest sizes (rarely larger than nine millimeters), these are your grandmother's pearls. Note that Tiffany is among the jewelers who consider bleaching and dyeing acceptable manipulations of South Sea and other pearls.
A WORD OF ADVICE Patronize recognized dealers. Attempts to classify pearls according to standard gemological guidelines have never really gotten off the ground. Many dealers, especially in Tahiti, will offer "certificates" or X rays, or say they will repurchase unsatisfactory pearls. Give them a pass unless you're a gambler. You'll do just as well in Papeete's market if junk pearls are all you desire.
SHOPS Tahiti Perles Centre Vaima Shopping Center, Rue Jeanne d'Arc, Papeete; 689/45-05-05, fax 689/45-32-46; email@example.com. Robert Wan's luxe store. A string of incredibly luminous grays costs $60,000, an enormous sum to your average scribbler but in market terms a steal.
Paspaley Pearls 142 King St., Sydney; 61-2/9232-7633, fax 61-2/9221-2301; firstname.lastname@example.org. The country's most venerable dealer operates three stores in Australia with astounding selections of mounted, strung, and loose pearls.
One option is to book a pearls cruise on Radisson Seven Seas. This will take you to Tahiti and Bora-Bora, with various stops along the way. The cruises are led by jewelry designer Christopher Walling, who has made pieces for Elizabeth Taylor, São Schlumberger, and Brooke Hayward, among others. Seven-night cruises depart from Papeete on November 18 and November 25. Prices start at $2,895. Call 800/285-1835.