The Pearl (part one)
Posted: May 10 2012
"Are you sure?” This seemed crazy to me. I searched Julien’s green eyes for any sign of him kidding around. His sun blackened face was typically animated by a faint mischievous smile, infused with good nature but sometimes you wondered. Julien was a Paumotu (person of the Tuamotu Archipelago) and one of the tiny handful of farmers who had started farming Tahitian pearls around the same time as our farm, circa 1990.
But he was dead serious. “If they all die, no problem.”
Julien had accosted me on the quay where the people from different far-flung parts of the atoll came together every week. Essentials like food and gasoline arrived on the weekly supply ship, making it a great excuse to put work aside and catch up with fellow farmers. This was often a less-than-sober occasion but today Julien and I were both clear headed. A year or so earlier a Japanese graft technician had done a trial run at his one-room farm and the pearls were in need of harvesting.
Julien could have killed the oysters and harvested the pearls as most would have done but word had reached him that I had been recently instructed in the secret craft known locally as the “surgreffe.” The surgreffe involved making a tiny incision in the flesh of the oyster and gently extracting the pearl. The pearl is then replaced by a nucleus that mimics the pearl and boom, the process starts all over again but with a much bigger nucleus, consequently resulting in a larger and far more valuable pearl. At the time it was the strict domain of Japanese (and one Australian) technicians that jealously kept the secret. It requires a steady hand, very specific tools and a knowledge of where and how to use them. I had all of these but was lacking in a last crucial piece of the puzzle: experience. My instructor in the surgreffe, the Japanese technician Yamamoto, who had taught me had let me do a couple in front of him. I had the basic idea down but without practicing I felt like I was thoroughly unqualified to risk the lives of another farmer’s oysters. It is said that to begin to master pearl seeding or the “first graft” of oysters, it requires having done a minimum of 10,000.
Despite my objections, Julien insisted and the following Saturday found me leaving our bumpy windward side and crossing the atoll’s lagoon to his farm on the east side, grafting tools in my pack and butterflies in my stomach.
His farm consisted of nothing more than a ramshackle hut on crumbling wooden stilts with a short walkway that led to his motu, a segment of the chain in the mini islands that make up the atoll of Ahe. The east side of the island is what you might imagine a coral atoll to look like. Dark green coconut trees arc away from a thin strip of cream colored sand that meets water so clear you aren’t sure where it starts. It then blends into every possible shade of blue and turquoise and is further enhanced by the wild contrasting pinks and oranges of coral gardens that span off into deeper water. Fat parrot fish languidly crunch coral near the surface and flip their blue/green and sometimes orange/yellow tails out of the still water. The peace that infuses life on this side of the atoll is due to the lack of wind and chop on the water. The prevailing wind comes from the East so the east side of the atoll is typically in the lee, especially where there are trees to block it.
As much as his property invited leisure, all I had on my mind was how I would best do what I came to do. My primary concern was the well being of his oysters but I knew that sooner or later I would have to start on the road to being experienced in the craft. Also, grafting outside of one’s farm publicly places a pearl technician within a quality continuum. I wanted to be sure I was at the right end of the continuum and yet I was stepping into unfamiliar territory with no safety net. Despite my friend’s nonchalance I knew that a botch-job here could stick to me like a bad odor for an indefinite amount of time.
The oysters had been placed in retention nets that allowed Julien to know that what he brought me was guaranteed to have pearls waiting inside. This is a common way that farmers have of getting an early indication of the quality of their technician’s work. The nets are on the oysters for the first six weeks usually, then removed so that the health of the oyster isn’t affected by the mesh that will quickly clog with marine growth.
While he was out retrieving the oysters from their holding lines I got my tools together, sharpened my knives and was ready for him on his return. The operations of the 20 oysters he brought me went surprisingly well and a year and a half later found us back on the wharf of the port for the arrival of another supply ship. He told me that he had harvested the pearls and that if I wanted to come and see them I was welcome to.
Please tune in next week for PART TWO.