the history of black pearls

The History of Black Pearls

Mysterious and unique black pearls stand out for their elegant appearance. A stunning contrast to the traditional white pearls, black pearls come from Tahiti and other Polynesian regions and are associated with legends and stories dating back centuries.

Whether you have a black pearl necklace and want to explore its history, or you’re simply curious about Tahitian and Polynesian culture, learn more about the gem that has enthralled people for ages. Today, we want to take you into the rich history and meaning behind black pearls. Come with us on a journey to faraway lands where the black pearls’ story began.

Table of Contents

What Are Black Pearls?

Natural black pearls offer a distinctive allure and mystery that sets them apart from milky pearls. These elegant gems are one-of-a-kind, requiring special conditions to create that rich, dark glow. Though manufacturers attempt to replicate them, true black pearls cannot be carefully cultured. They must follow a very specific process to become the stunning vistas we know.

Despite the name, black pearls are not completely black. Their surfaces feature pink, green, lavender, gold or blue glimmers that reflect when exposed to light. These rich colors blend to create a stunning flash of rainbow across the gem. 

How Are Black Pearls Formed?

Depending on the type of pearl, black pearls may be created using treatments, such as irradiation or dyes. Uncultured black pearls form like other types of pearls because pearl farmers don’t grow them in tightly controlled conditions. Truly black pearls get their colors from the Pinctada margaritifera oyster. This mollusk has a thick, black inner shell. Pearls formed here are darker than those formed further away, which are white or silver.

The black pearl undergoes a highly specific process to become this treasured gem. Explore the steps that a black pearl takes, from a small grain of sand to the beautiful treasure that’s popular on jewelry and craftwork.

1. It Starts With a Piece of Sand

The formation of the black pearl starts when a piece of sand or irritant enters the Pinctada margaritifera shell, which is local to the waters of French Polynesia. As a result of this irritant getting stuck inside its body, the mollusk coats it in calcium carbonate to ease its discomfort. After the calcium carbonate hardens, it forms a pearl. The pearl contains the same substance that lines the inside of the oyster’s shell.

2. The Beautiful Black Coloring Develops

The pearl’s color is usually based on the oyster’s shell, whether it’s blue or green on the inside. The nacre, the inside of the oyster’s shell, is typically silver or glossy white, except for the Tahitian black-lipped oyster that has a thick black band around it. If the pearl forms near that band, it’ll take on that same coloring.

Even though this phenomenon typically happens, pearl farming can be unpredictable. This characteristic of the pearl’s coloring makes each pearl valuable. Since the black pearl is rare, it tends to be more favored than other colors.

3. The Black Pearl Is Fully Formed and Discovered

Over time, the pearl remains hidden inside the oyster until a harvester finds and brings it to the surface. After being harvested in the French Polynesian, the black pearl takes a trip to Tahiti to be sold and traded.

4. Other Methods for Coloring

Besides the truly black pearls from Tahiti, pearl farmers will try to manufacture this color by surgically injecting an irritant, such as plastic or a shell fragment, into the oyster’s membrane. After putting the bead inside the oyster, the pearl farmer monitors and cares for it until the nacre forms. This process may take several years before the pearl is fully formed.

Where Are Black Pearls From?

Black pearls have two main origin points — French Polynesia and East Asia. Explore the history of how each type of pearl came to be below.

French Polynesia

The black pearl from French Polynesia, known as the Tahitian pearl, is a beautiful, exotic gem with an interesting history. Explorers and oyster farmers were originally interested in the Pinctada margaritifera because of the glistening, colorful mother-of-pearl that lines the inside of its shell. Even though this oyster was always able to produce these black pearls, these priceless gems weren’t as popular as mother-of-pearls until later, after they made their way from European travelers and explorers to advanced pearl farms.

Follow the story of how black pearls became popular in French Polynesia:

  • European travelers took them home: Like the Tahitian pearl, the mother-of-pearl can take on a wide variety of colors — black, green, charcoal gray, purple and pink — due to its formation in the black-lipped Pinctada margaritifera. Since this species has a flat, round shell, it was easy for travelers to transport. European travelers would take a large amount of them back home with them.
  • European explorers recognized their beauty: During their expedition around the Pacific Ocean, European explorers such as Ferdinand Magellan and others discovered Polynesia’s atolls, incentivizing others to explore the land and colonize it for their own countries.
  • The French colonized Polynesia: The British and French claimed the islands of Polynesia, leading to France colonizing it. After French Polynesia officially became a country, early explorers and traders created a demand across the world for the Tahitian mother-of-pearl from the black-lipped Pinctada margaritifera.
  • The pearl enters international markets: Around the time of French Polynesia’s establishment, international markets noticed the black pearl’s natural beauty and exotic colors. The oysters were so popular and in demand that they almost became extinct. Designers used black pearls for decorative objects, ready-to-wear clothing and inlay for furniture.
  • Pearl farming techniques advanced: Locals started to put their time and effort into pearl farming so that the Pinctada margaritifera didn’t go extinct and they could have continuous access to the pearls they needed. At this time,  people didn’t know how to farm and harvest pearls, so the techniques didn’t produce great results. The locals couldn’t harvest enough pearls, and they weren’t as desirable as the pearls from French Polynesia.
  • Coconut oil takes the reigns: Instead of perfecting their pearl farming techniques, the region began focusing on coconut oil as an alternative way to make money. As a result of this change of focus, locals raised the oysters instead of harvesting them. Pearl farming didn’t become a significant industry in Tahiti and the surrounding areas until later.
  • Salvador J. Assael increases the black pearl’s popularity: The black pearl ultimately became recognized worldwide largely in part because of Salvador J. Assael, who was passionate about finding the best pearls all over the world. He celebrated the black pearl and began cultivating them on his own after purchasing a little island.

French Polynesia is known for using sustainable pearl processing practices, making it one of the only eco-friendly gems available today.

East Asia

Black pearls are also manufactured in China and Japan. Chinese black freshwater pearls and Japanese black Akoya pearls are often dyed and treated throughout processing. Japan is recognized as the leader in consistent, high-quality Akoya pearl production. Traditional Akoya pearls are perfectly round, but some also come in less uniform shapes.

What’s the Process for Harvesting a Black Pearl?

The process of harvesting a black pearl requires time, patience and expertise. You can see a black pearl harvest for yourself on your cruise in Tahiti. When you adventure with Windstar, you can explore a lagoon with a pearl station. During this expedition, you’ll learn how a black pearl is formed and cultured during a black pearl harvest.

As you arrive at Anapa Pearl Farm, the colorful backdrop of Tahiti and the sound of the waves on the beach will welcome you, setting the stage for your exotic adventure and immersive explorations. An experienced guide will explain the hidden mysteries of Tahiti’s beautiful, rare black pearl. After the grafter “operates” on the pearl, you’ll learn how farmers harvest it. If you appreciate nature and the history behind gems, you won’t want to miss this excursion on your cruise to Tahiti.

What’s the Meaning of Black Pearls?

Most people consider black pearls to be the most mysterious of all pearls. They represent different things to different people and cultures, like strength or endearing love. Let’s dive into the different meanings that black pearls have come to symbolize:

  • Wisdom and knowledge: Black pearls symbolize knowledge and wisdom because of a legend in ancient China, which told a story of the pearl originating from dragons’ brains. If the dragon were ever to lose its pearl, it wouldn’t be able to function. With this meaning in mind, giving someone a gift with black pearls means you wish them a life full of wisdom and knowledge.
  • Tears and sadness: According to a legend from Sri Lanka, or Ceylon, black pearls symbolized tears and sadness, specifically of Adam and Eve. As a result of this meaning of black pearls, many consider it bad luck for a bride to wear pearls on her wedding day.
  • Everlasting love: Black pearls can symbolize everlasting love because of a legend in ancient Polynesia where a god brought a black pearl to earth and gave it to the woman he loved. Since this gem symbolizes love, lovers can give black pearls as gifts to celebrate their passion and commitment for one another on their birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and engagements.
  • Protection against evil: Throughout history, black pearls have been viewed as protective amulets, a stone that wards against evil. It’s believed to protect the wearer and get rid of negative energies. Giving a black pearl as a gift is a way of wishing the receiver protection from negativity and evil.

Myths of the Black Pearl From Around the World

Many intriguing legends exist about the black pearl’s meaning. From Polynesia to China, people have been telling stories of the black pearl’s origins for centuries. Check out a few of these tales:

  • The first Polynesian legend: Ancient Polynesia provides us with two myths of how the black pearl came to be. According to the first one, the Polynesian god Oro traveled on a rainbow to earth and gifted Princess Bora Bora a black pearl to show he loved her. Since this rare pearl was an image of Oro’s eternal love for Princess Bora Bora, romantics today give black pearl jewelry to their loved ones as a symbol of their love.
  • The second Polynesian legend: According to the second legend from Polynesia, the moon tries to attract oysters to the surface by lighting up the ocean. The moon showers the oysters that appear with heavenly dew. Black pearls develop from the drops of dew polished over time.
  • Chinese legend: The people of ancient China believed the black pearl symbolizes infinite knowledge and wisdom. According to the legend, black pearls come from the head of a dragon, a wise creature in Chinese culture. Dragons would keep their pearls between their teeth until they died. To extract the black pearl from the dragon, someone would have to slay the dragon first.
  • Ceylon legend: According to a legend from Ceylon, or Sri Lanka, there’s a small body of pearls filled with the tears of Adam and Eve. Eve’s tears produced white and pink pearls, while Adam’s tears produced the rare gray and black ones. The legend suggests that black pearls are rarer than white ones because men cry less often than women do.

How Rare Are Black Pearls?

Since the Tahitian pearls are the only naturally black pearls available, they’re extremely rare and prized all over the world. Besides their color, their round shape also makes Tahitian pearls a unique and valuable find. 

Since there are several different types of pearls, the degree to which a black pearl is rare depends on its characteristics. As the most plentiful and easily accessible pearl, the freshwater pearl dyed in black has become a prominent gem in the jewelry industry. Some Akoya pearls also receive a coloring treatment to give them the shade of black many people in the market desire.

Explore the Rich History of Tahiti’s Black Pearls for Yourself

From ancient legends to modern-day glamor, black pearls have entranced explorers for centuries. If you’d like to discover the wonders of pearl harvesting for yourself, why not go to the home of the black pearl?

At Windstar, we offer the journey of a lifetime, where we’ll take you to a local pearl farm and let you watch the harvesting process with your own eyes. Explore our cruises to Tahiti to learn more about black pearls and the equally rich culture surrounding them. If you’re ready to find out if you can book a voyage with us, request a call to start planning today!

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