Between 1400 and 1800, fine pearls were mainly found in Mexico, Japan and the Persian Gulf; it was only in 1802 that mother-of-pearl began to be exploited in Polynesia, notably for the button industry and mainly in Hikueru, Manihi and Takaroa.
In 1900, a certain Simon Grand, a producer of oysters from Arcachon, experimented successfully with collecting young pearl-bearing oysters in different Polynesian lagoons and particularly in the Gambier Islands.
This was followed by the work of the biologists Bouchon Brandely and Gilbert Ranson. Brandely’s work principally concentrated on assessing the productivity of various lagoons. He recommended a sensible policy of managing the lagoons, with permitted diving seasons for each lagoon, allowing certain sectors to be closed at the end of the diving period.
In spite of several attempts at grafting, notably during the 1930s by a certain François Hervé whose illustrious witness was the painter Matisse, it was only in the 1960s that a trial graft was actually successful. In fact, the head of the fishing service, Jean-Marie Domard, had studied grafting in the late 1950s on the pearl farm of Mr Mikimoto (the celebrated Japanese who with Mr Mise had patented the ‘fragment method’ of grafting in 1916). Mr Domard decided to try the experiment with C. Moroi, a noted Japanese grafter of the day. This first experiment was carried out on the Hikueru atoll. The harvest being satisfactory, it was decided to repeat the experiment bringing pearl-bearing oysters from Mopelia to Bora Bora. The resulting harvest was exhibited in the Assemblée Territoriale in February 1965 and the pearls were set by the jeweler Mourareau. Some of them were as much as 14mm in diameter. It was the beginning of a new industry.
As Jean-Marie Domard was leaving the territory in 1967, a pivotal figure in the history of the pearl, Koko Chaze, was experimenting with growing ‘mabé’ (half-pearls) at Rangiroa.
These different experiments caused ripples of interest worldwide, and Jacques Rosenthal, of the famous Paris dealers Rosenthal Frères, recruited William Reed, a marine biologist with eight years’ experience in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, to examine the possibility of raising pearl-bearing oysters on a large scale. He spent several weeks with Chaze, both inseminating about 2000 oysters in order to obtain some ‘mabés’. The collectors were made from dried branches of the local shrub, the miki miki.
Acting on the advice of Dr Domard, Koko Chaze went to the Minihi atoll with some ‘mabés’ to put into effect the results obtained on the Rangiroa atoll. And so the first pearl farm in French Polynesia was born on the Manihi atoll in 1968. At this point Chaze was joined from France by Jacques and Aubert Rosenthal, the grandsons of the famous Paris jeweler Léonard Rosenthal, who financed the operation. The first round pearl from this farm, the Société Perlière de Manihi, was produced in 1970.
William Reed left the Department of Fisheries in 1973 to set up his own company, Tahiti Perles, and began pearl farming at Mangareva in the Gambier Islands. He sold the company two years later to Robert Wan.
In 1975, a 50-year-old French businessman, Jean-Claude Brouillet, arrived in Tahiti. Among numerous other investments, he had bought the South Marutea atoll in the Gambier archipelago, where he started pearl farming with another Frenchman, Mr Brannelec. Brouillet was the first to demonstrate that dealers in high-end jewelry could be approached with Tahitian cultured pearls: up until then, the pearls were virtually unknown internationally. After 15 years of work, Brouillet retired and sold his atoll and his pearl farm in 1984 to Robert Wan, who had become ‘the emperor of the Tahitian Pearl.’
In 1976: the Gemmological Institute of America (GIA) recognized the ‘natural color’ of the Tahitian Pearls.
In 1988, the Confédération Internationale de la Bijouterie, Joaillerie et Orfèvrerie formally accepted the denomination ‘Tahitian cultured pearls of natural colors.’
Even though this denomination was accepted on an administrative level, it would take until at least 1994 for it to be recognized and respected worldwide. By then it had already become, for the specialists of the world, ‘the Pearl of Queens and the Queen of Pearls.’