Black cultured pearls, also known as Tahitian pearls, are coveted for their exotic beauty. With their large size and greenish or pinkish sheen, they are reminiscent of the tropical settings in the South Pacific from which they hail.
The islands that are now French Polynesia (and include the island of Tahiti) were discovered in the 1700s and soon became celebrated for the treasures explorers found in the waters — including natural pearls. Shortly after people began culturing Akoya pearls in Japan, producers began trying to culture black pearls in the South Pacific, finally becoming commercially successful in the 1960s.
Sources and production
The large, black-lipped oyster native to the waters of the South Pacific is responsible for giving birth to the black cultured pearl. The oyster is about twice the size of the Akoya pearl oyster and produces larger pearls, and its species is responsible for the colors of the pearls that emerge from it.
Tahitian black cultured pearls are the largest export of French Polynesia. The Cook Islands also produce black pearls.
To culture Tahitian pearls, one round shell bead is implanted into the tissue of a large, black-lipped pearl oyster. In reaction to this irritant, the oyster begins to produce nacre, the lustrous coating that creates the pearl. The longer the pearls are left in the water, the more coats of nacre they will have, which makes them more beautiful. The bead remains within the pearl as its nucleus. A black pearl takes about two to three years to form. Once a black pearl oyster produces a pearl, it is usually implanted again, up to three or four times in its lifetime.
Color and surface
Black pearls are not, in fact, always black. Often they are a very dark charcoal, with overtones of green, pink, purple or blue. They also come in silver or gray. Tahitian pearls are usually not dyed; the colors should be natural.
Tahitian black pearls are beautiful and lustrous, with many different colors often appearing in their sheen. However, because they’re cultivated in warmer waters, they don't always have quite the same reflective sheen as Akoya cultured pearls.
The amount of blemishes on a Tahitian pearl will determine its value.
Tahitian pearls are valued for their roundness, but they also come in baroque shapes — irregular or oblong shapes that can be beautiful and unique.
Tahitian black pearls typically appear in sizes from 9mm to 18mm; average sizes are 10mm to 11mm.
Use in jewelry
Tahitian black pearls are often used in high-value fine jewelry, and are considered looks of luxury. A strand of black pearls may either match the size and color of the pearls exactly, or may present multi-colored Tahitian pearls in a rainbow-like pattern. Single black pearls are also popular in pendants, rings and stud or drop earrings.
Tahitian black pearl care
Pearls are delicate. The nacre on the outside of pearls is soft, and though the layer of nacre is thick on Tahitian pearls, it can still wear or chip away over time if you don’t treat the pearls with extreme care. Keep your black pearls in a box with a soft lining and away from metal jewelry that can rub against them. Also be careful not to get makeup, hairspray or harsh soaps or chemicals on your pearl jewelry.