French Polynesia, New Zealand, and Australia...


Well-known member
Jun 22, 2004
I am sorry that it has taken me so long to type this up. The first week back for a 2-week trip is always a bit demanding.

This is my journal for the entire two weeks, with a few pictures interspersed.

An incredible trip, I hope you all enjoy!
Sunset on Marutea Sud, French Polynesia

Day 1

We arrived into Papeete around 6:00 pm. It was still muggy and just starting to get dark. A greeter met us outside the airport with leis before boarding the bus. One or two members of the group were missing their bags so we waited nearly an hour before departing for the hotel. The bus was running with the AC pumping, so we were fine.

Arriving at the Sheraton Hotel we were met with our keys and told that the “meet and greet” cocktail party would be starting in an hour.

The party was low key. Many in the group had come from destinations much farther than Los Angeles, and were worn out from the travel.

Raitu Galenon from GIE Perles de Tahiti made an appearance at the party. I have met him several times over the years. He is a regular at the GIE booth in Las Vegas. We chatted a bit about the industry, both local and abroad.

I left after only 30 minutes, however, as I was scheduled to depart the hotel at 6:00 am with group one. We are the first group to visit Robert Wan's pearl farm on the remote atoll of Marutea Sud.

Day 2

The alarm went off at 5:00 am. Considering Tahiti is three hours ahead of Los Angeles, this was not too bad.

The bus was a half hour late, but did not matter as we waited at the private-plane airport for nearly an hour. But it was an hour well spent as Betty-Sue King, Mona-Lee Neseth, Pearl-Guide's GemGeek Blaire, Blaire's friend Leslie and I had a nice long pearl talk. We discussed Tridacna nuclei and other industry news.

At the airport we were met by Bruno Wan, the son of Robert Wan. An easy going Tahitian, he was full of jokes and smiles. He would certainly be the perfect host.
Bruno Wan, Betty Sue King and Mona Neseth

Bruno Wan with Betty-Sue King and Mona-Lee Neseth

On Robert Wan's plane aptly named “Wan Air” I sat next to our group's GIA escort Akira Hyatt. We talked for most of the 3.5 hour flight to Marutea Sud.


Akira Hyatt was very different from the image that I had in my mind. I knew she worked at the GIA lab in New York and had been there for quite some time, and I had pictured her to be much older than she actually is.

A very down to earth young lady, Akira is friendly and social as they come. She specializes in pearls, identification and grading, and freely shared her experiences. She did not have a real grasp on the industry as this was not her focus, but she knew pearls as well as anyone else I know.
Akira Hyatt

Arriving on Marutea Sud after stopping for fuel on the atoll of Nego-Nego (another of Robert Wan's atolls and home to only five people and little pearl production) we were lead to our small bungalows. They were not exactly first class as they were completely free of any type of amenities, but they were clean, comfortable, and very authentic. We felt like kids at camp realizing we would all be sharing one shower and two bathrooms for the duration of our stay.

After an amazing lunch of chicken, Parrot Fish and pearl meat (sauteed Pinctada margaritifera adductor muscle) we boarded two speed boats to cross the lagoon to the pearl farming action on the opposite side of the atoll. There we were able to get a close up view of the operation.

The operation was very much like an assembly line. There were more than a dozen grafters and a lot of other workers whose jobs consisted of prepping shell for surgery by opening them, selecting and cutting mantle tissue, drilling the shell to hang in the long-line system, tying shell to the ropes, and several other “grunt” jobs of hauling trays of shell and equipment between different points.

Tying Tahitian pearl oysters to chaplet lines

There was really only one thing that surprised me on this farm. All of the grafters were Chinese. There was not a single Japanese technician among them. Bruno told me that Wan's operation had been using Chinese for at least 10 years now. He said the Japanese were too expensive because they had to fly in fresh sushi everyday - A joke, of course.

Nucleating a Tahitian pearl oyster

Although I knew Chinese grafters worked extensively throughout French Polynesia in many of the farms, I was under the impression that Wan only employed Japanese grafters. I thought I had read that somewhere, but now I am unsure.

After an hour of watching the operation we walked along the water to a small island church. Apparently the island is catholic, or maybe only the Wans are. The church was decorated with black-lip shells and a Tahitian necklace hung around a crucifix hanging on the wall. It was a gift to Jesus from Robert Wan, Bruno told us.

We left the church in a wagon-type vehicle pulled by a tractor around the rim of the atoll. We headed to a beach where the view of the island sunset was best. We spent a while collecting shells along the shore before we opened a few bottles of champagne and watched the sunset as whales were breaking the surface in near acrobatic form just off the reef.

Back at the main camp we enjoyed another incredible dinner of island fare, drank wine and talked about the day. We turned in early as electricity on the island is cut off at 9:30 pm. It is “lights out” on the island at 9:30 pm, every day.
Day 3

Akira came knocking on doors at 5:00 am. Breakfast is served at 5:30 as work begins on the farm at 6:00.

With only one shower and so many members of the group in line, I decided to jump in the lagoon instead. The water felt magnificent. It was cool and clean. There is something about swimming in the tropics while the sun comes up that has always appealed to me.

Shortly after breakfast we boarded the boats once again to another side of the atoll to another part of the farm operation. There the focus was on spat collection and rearing.


Piles and piles of new and old spat collectors littered the beach. We were able to closely examine a collector as it came in and found Pinctada margaritifera in several stages of growth, as well as thousands of small Pinctada maculata, or Pipi shells. Pipi are known for the small natural pearls of cream to gold coloration, matching the brilliant color of their mother of pearl, but here they are considered a nuisance, and the far outnumber the Pinctada margaritifera on the collectors.

Tahitian pearl oyster Spat

After our tour of the operation we each enjoyed a chilled coconut with a straw before boarding the boats for our next stop; a secluded beach where we were able to relax and swim. There were countless small black-tip sharks in the area, harmless as they are, we enjoyed getting as close to them as possible.

Crossing back over the lagoon we passed many cleaning boats that were pulling the lines of shell onto specialized cleaners. Every shell is cleaned of barnacles and other growth on a regular basis.

Tahitian pearl oyster cleaning boat

Arriving back at the main camp we prepared for our final lunch on the island. We spent an hour laughing and joking with Bruno, who had indeed been the perfect host.

Shortly after 1:00 pm we boarded the plane for our flight back to Papeete. We arrived exhausted, four hours later after another refueling stop on Nego-Nego atoll. The evening was at leisure so we headed back to the Sheraton.

Marutea Sud Atoll from the Air - Robert Wan pearl farm

A view of Marutea Sud during take-off
I came down for dinner shortly after and sat with Herb and Evelyn Umeda, probably the sweetest retired couple I have ever met. They are retired from the jewelry industry, but Evelyn still runs a pearl business out of their home. They really are some of the nicest people I have met in a long time, and a perfectly matched couple.
Day 4

A Day to sleep in – until 8:00 am. Pick up was scheduled for 9:00 am.

Raitu Galenon was our escort for the day, and our first stop was the Pearl Ministry. There we were able to see Tahitian pearls going through the government-mandated examines that every pearl is required to pass before export from French Polynesia. Large bags of recently harvested pearls were piled on one side of the Ministry's testing office. Each bag contained thousands of pearls separated by shape and grade. They were ready for export.

Interestingly, the lots that were awaiting examination when we arrived that day were marked with their assigned grades, but the grading was not standard Tahitian grading of A-D. Instead, the pearls were graded A-AAA, with intermediate grades of AA1 and A1. Raitu explained that this was the particular farm's grading scale, proving that even Tahitian farmers and traders sometimes use the A-AAA system preferred in the United States.

Prior to export all Tahitian pearls must pass through this office and be examined for two things. The first is an x-ray examination. A technician sits in front of a screen while a real-time x-ray is passed over trays of pearls. Each individual pearl is examined, and every pearl must have at least .8mm of nacre surrounding the nucleus to pass examination.

Testing Tahitian pearl nacre thickness with Xray

The second examination is of the the pearl's surface. We observed one man examining several hanks of circle pearls. The pearls must be free of excessive flaws (beyond D grade) and damage to be approved for export.

Pearls that do not pass one of the tests are separated from the lot, carefully itemized, and stored in a vault until they are to be destroyed. The pearls are then crushed.

In my experience, 2-3% of the pearls passing through this office are selected for destruction.

Jeremy having fun with the Xray machine

So I am smiling... do you see all the Tahitian pearls in front of me? Photo by Blaire (aka GemGeek)

The laws that regulate the quality of Tahitian pearls for export are in place to protect the consumer and the industry. Before minimum standards were adopted a lot of garbage poured into the market by way of thin-nacre pearls, and heavily blemished strands. But I do not think the laws are perfect yet, and I feel adjustments should be made.

Many of the pearls that we saw set aside for destruction were baroque. Some of them were incredibly beautiful as well. But because they were baroque the nuclei were not centered within the pearls. This meant that although one side of the pearl could have very thick nacre, another part of it may be too thin. These pearls are then destroyed. In my opinion this is a waste of very good pearls and was not likely considered when the law was enacted. This may be one reason we see so many beautiful baroque South Sea pearls in white and gold, but very few Tahitians. They are so beautiful, we are really missing out. That law needs to be examined for possible exceptions.

The next stop of the day was the Robert Wan pearl museum - billed as the world's only pearl museum. I should mention that this is not completely true as I have personally been to a pearl museum in Behai, China that was as equally impressive.

Robert Wan Museum Strand

The staff was very gracious and took time to explain the exhibits and pieces on display. However, their explanations were very simple, completely non-technical, and in several instances wrong, unfortunately.

27 mm Tahitian baroque pearl at Wan Museum

27.0 Baroque Tahitian Pearl

Some notable pearls in the Museum's collection included a 21.4 mm round and a 27.0 mm baroque Tahitian pearl. The most eye-catching piece to me was a curtain between exhibits composed of multiple strings of circle pearls, hundreds of them, hanging from the ceiling.

Curtain made of Tahitian pearls

The Pearl Curtain

As the museum was the last stop of the tour, a few of us broke from the group to window shop Tahitian pearls in downtown Papeete.

In Tahiti one would expect to find deals on jewelry and loose pearls as nearly every boutique specializes in Tahitians, but that is not the case. Tahitian pearls are, for the most part, much more expensive in Tahiti than in the United States. Retail prices were in the range of 10 times what I typically pay for wholesale lots. I think I need to open a pearl store in Tahiti!
Day 5

The group was scheduled to take an island tour today; a museum, a garden, and a blowhole were all on the list. But having seen my share of blowholes and gardens I decided to skip this day and spent it instead shooting video of the island – in relation to pearls, of course.

There was also a group dinner scheduled – a sort of farewell to the island dinner. But I had previously arranged a meeting with pearl farm owner Josh Humbert, so I did not attend.

Josh is a young, friendly guy. Definitely the youngest pearl farmer I have ever met from French Polynesia.

Although we had originally only planned to have dinner together, Josh had just recently harvested pearls from his farm. Many of them were second graft pearls, promising to be somewhat large. I asked him to fly his harvest in to Papeete so I could take a look at them before dinner. They arrived just a few hours before we were to meet. He only brought the rounds.

The first lot, the larger 11.0 mm+ size pearls was quite dark. A quick check of a couple handfuls showed 30-35% A/B grade, which is not bad for this size and second graft. The pearls were also quite dark.

The second lot was 8-11.00 mm, and was even darker than the first, and had a lot more peacock mixed in. The ratio was slightly better than the larger lot with approximately 40% A/B.

Although our inventory really only lacks larger pearls at the moment, I decided to make an offer for 50% of both lots. We did not negotiate much, although truthfully Josh's asking prices were quite a bit market, but 50% of the pearls were only about 2 kilos, so I decided to buy them anyway. He does have some amazing-color pearls, and I did want the chance to “experiment” with them later.

Afterward we headed to dinner and celebrated our first deal. He dropped me back off at the hotel where the group had just started desert. I was able to have a glass of wine with them and in the end stayed out a little late with Akira and two of the Robert Wan's employees.

Another night of setting an early alarm, we are leaving for Papeete International Airport at 6:30 in the morning.

Day 6

Today started with a 5:30 am wake up call from the front desk. Our flight had been delayed. Not only had it been delayed, however, it had been delayed until 10:30pm.

Many of the group took the opportunity to visit Moorea or do even more shopping; I spent the day reading by the pool and catching up on emails. We left for the airport late that evening, and the flight left without incident.
Day 7

Day 7 was really just a continuation of Day 6. We arrived into Auckland at 4:00am, and this is where things started going a little haywire.

Apparently our flight to Auckland was special. We were not to clear customs in Auckland (our port of entry), we were to clear at our next stop - Christchurch. The problem was that no one seemed to know this, and the gate agents in Papeete had specifically told us to clear customs in Auckland, as was normal procedure. Half the group, me included, went to get our bags and clear customs. But more than half our bags were missing! After waiting for some time a custom's official informed us that our missing bags were to clear customs in Christchurch, and we were to clear customs now - without them. Very strange...

After we had cleared we learned that we should not have, and now we were blocked from getting back on the continuation flight. This was not a complete disaster, however, as we were immediately relisted on a flight that left shortly thereafter. We spent the next few hours lounging in the Auckland airport before sunrise.

After a short flight to Christchurch we finally arrived at our hotel completely spent. We only had about an hour and a half to get ready before the bus was to pick us up and take us to the blue pearl processing facility.

We all made it down on time, a sorry bunch, many of us nodded off during the 20-minute ride. To our surprise we turned down a small country road and stopped near a driveway leading to what appeared to be a small, nondescript farm. We had arrived at the blue pearl processing center.

Roger Beattie

Roger Beattie.JPG

Crocodile Kiwi!

Roger Beattie, founder of Eyris Blue Pearls... where do I start with this Kiwi?!

Roger must be one of the world's most affable entrepreneurs. Incredibly successful, yet completely unpretentious. He appears to have a permanently affixed smile on his face, and a minute rarely passes without him breaking into a rolling fit of laughter. The kind of laughter you are unable to resist, even if the humor escapes you.

He exudes excitement about his pearls and his other projects and passions. One of which is wildlife rescue.

Roger's wife met the group as we walked down the driveway. Quite a site we were, 27 of us with our bags and cameras in this rural farming area of New Zealand.

country road crowd.JPG

A strange site indeed

Roger appeared shortly, bouncing up to the group with a giddy grin and a Crocodile Dundee-style hat.

His first order of business was to give us a tour of the farm, completely ignoring the blue pearl operation. He showed us a section of his property dedicated to a rare and rapidly disappearing breed of rabbit, and another for a threatened type of bird called the Wicka. Roger lectured us for an hour about the animals and how screwed up the bureaucrats are in New Zealand. According to Roger, the problems lie in absurd bureaucratic systems. So upset he is, he is currently writing a book called Why Bureaucrats are Bastards.

Finally on to the workshop and the blue pearls!

Unlike anything we expected, the work area looked more like a garage than a pearl processing center. Testament to the newness of the industry, all of the equipment was customized, rebuilt shop equipment. All the way down to a skill saw that had water dripping from the blade while it cut, and an air hose exhaust. This saw was only used with a rubber-handled wrench, as Roger was quite certain one would be electrocuted by touching it while plugged in.

Roger cutting abalone shell with his custom skill saw

Roger cutting shell with his custom skill saw

We were given the full tour of the process, crowded like sardines in a space build for only a few, but accommodating 27 guests and Roger's crew.

After an hour or so it became apparent that much of the group was nearing a zombie state, so Roger suggested tea. We walked to the farmhouse where he fried some abalone meat, and his wife served coffee, tea, and cake.

GIA Alumni tour group at Eyris Blue Pearls, New Zealand

Smiling but completely exhausted

Arriving back at the hotel I realized that it had been nearly 40 hours since our last wakeup call. I think we all slept well.
Day 8

Awake and rested, we headed to the bus after a New Zealand-style breakfast. We drove to the small town of Akaroa, about an hour and a half outside of Christchurch.

The countryside of New Zealand ran by the windows like a film-strip of postcards, each more beautiful than the last. We chatted about ?Lord of the Rings? and just admired the scenery.

Akaroa is a quaint little town, sleepy on a day like this. We walked down the center of the street as there were no cars or pedestrians to speak of.

At the end of the town's pier we visited a blue pearl jewelry store, and a presentation gallery that detailed the operation - past and present.

Split into three groups, we took turns on the boat out to the farm.

group on barge.JPG

It was cold and windy, bouncing through the waves; it felt as though we were on an Alaskan fishing boat. The crew on board and the crew on the barge looked as though they had endured this weather for years. Roger later told me we were lucky that the weather was so nice!

Blue Special Barge.JPG

The barge had been retrofitted to pull barrels of abalone out of the water. The black barrels, which looked like perforated garbage cans, were packed with abalone in all different stages of growth. Roger pulled a few out and lifted the edges of their mantles, or "lifted their skirts," as he so aptly put it, to show us the growing cultured mabe pearls.

lifting the abalone skirt to reveal the blister (soon to be mabe) pearl

Returning to Akaroa we had lunch at a local diner and talked about the day. I sat across from Roger and asked a lot of questions. After lunch it time to head back, but Roger invited me to ride along with him to continue our conversation.

Instead of going straight back to the hotel, Roger took me back to the processing center for a private "behind the scenes" tour. He allowed me to shoot photos of the entire process and equipment, and interview him candidly as we went. I had been familiar with his operation since the late '90s, and was particularly interested in the progression and seeming success he had finally achieved. I may write an article for P-G about it soon.

Candid blue pearl work shot

Roger showed me how each piece of equipment worked

After another cup of tea and a discussion about scotch, a fellow scotch lover he his, Roger drove me back to the hotel. I arrived with 15 minutes to prepare for dinner.

Dinner was at a private club which was once limited to male members. We heard a bit about its history, which closely paralleled that of Christchurch.

Bidding adieu we walked back to the hotel.
Day 9

This morning was scheduled to start at another blue pearl store, but I skipped this stop and instead jumped ahead to the 2nd stop of the morning ? the Eyris headquarters. There the pearls were sorted, graded, sold, and shipped. I wanted to have a chance to really learn and understand their grading system before the group arrived for the scheduled presentation.

The staff was very welcoming and spent about an hour with me going over each grading factor in detail. They also showed me some of their "special" pearls. The first was "Google Earth," a 21 mm mabe with a wide color range, and a 15 mm mabe with intense luster and color. This was also a named pearl, tagged "Luscious."

Two of Eryis's finest mabe pearls named Luscious and Google Earth

Luscious and Google Earth

What floored about these two mabes, however, were their asking prices. Google Earth was marked at $100,000, and Luscious at $15,000. The pearls were clearly marked to impress. I seriously doubted they ever hoped to sell them. Cultured mabe pearls, while nice, are still not pearls in the truest sense of the word - not even true cultured pearls. They should never, ever command a higher price than the best of the naturals on the market today. I actually chuckled about it with a staff member who rolled her eyes and laughed when she saw my astonishment.

The group eventually arrived and proceeded to watch a color and quality separation presentation. Roger then informed the group that he would allow the purchase of one pearl or set of pearls at wholesale. He could not allow regular wholesale purchases as he is in an exclusivity agreement with a US based wholesaler currently. Prices started in the $200 range for low-grade, and they progressed all the way to Google Earth ($100,000). Most members of the group purchased pearls in the $1000 range. But the show stopper came when Roger yelled out in laughter, "Luscious is sold!" One member of our group has just paid $15,000 for a loose cultured, blue mabe pearl. I am quite certain that a record was set, as well as a new benchmark for blue pearl valuation. Not a bad day for the Eyris group!

blue headquarters group.JPG

Walking back to the hotel we finally bid farewell to Roger and his wife and headed to the airport.

Our flight to Sydney was smooth with only a slight hiccup upon landing. The group was separated (once again), and one member of our group happened to take a wrong turn into a restricted area of the airport. Not the best move on this day, as President Bush was scheduled to arrive shortly for APEC, and security was tight. Akira was informed that David has been arrested. The arrest turned into a short detainment, and he quickly rejoined the group. He thought it was quite funny that everyone knew he had been detained except for him. He thought they were just asking him a few questions.

We boarded our final flight to Darwin, and arrived at midnight. The first Paspaley presentation was scheduled for 9:00 am the following morning.

Day 10

Paspaley senior adviser Richard McLean gave this morning's lecture. It focused on the history of the South Sea pearl industry, and what we could expect from our stay in Darwin.

During a break I introduced myself. He looked at me and said "Hey, you're that Pearl-Guide fellow." It is nice to know that all the way down under, people are still keeping tabs on what happens here on P-G.

We chatted a bit about the industry & GIA's new pearl's course, specifically the new South Sea pearl assignment. I had just completed a review of it before leaving on this trip, and he was eager for a synopsis. I was actually a bit disappointed in the assignment and told him so. I felt the actual history of the true beginnings of the industry in Burma and on the Ryukyu Islands has been left out. Instead it was replaced by the shell industry's history of Australia. An important historic attribute of what lead to the SSP industry in Australia, but not of the actual industry of South Sea pearls. It just did not make sense to me...

The presentation was the only thing scheduled for the day, and we were now free to explore Darwin on our own. Several of the group went on a tour called "The Jumping Crocodiles." I elected to walk around the city for most of the day just to take it all in. I returned to my room early to catch up on emails and this darn journal.

Later I met up with Akira for dinner, and we talked in length about the trip thus far.
Day 11

The group divided into three sections with group one heading to Kuri Bay by seaplane. I was placed into group 2, and our day consisted of everything Paspaley in Darwin.

Our first stop of the day was the Paspaley machine shop where all boats (not to be confused with the ships) and farming equipment were built and maintained. Here I discovered the world's most boring job ? knot tightening. Imagine sitting in front of a machine, cinching knots all day, every day ...

Workjers mending and creating ropes for pearl farm

From the machine shop we made our way to a pearling exhibition where we toured a museum-like facility which chronicled the history or pearling in Australia with videos and exhibitions.

After finishing a long lunch we headed for the Paspaley showroom of Darwin, which is located beneath (on street level) the sorting room. It is home to some of Paspaley's finest pieces, including their signature 2006/2007 Dolce collection. An ensemble of extravagance, featuring diamonds, sapphires, white gold, and of course, Australian South Sea pearls.

Paspaley Dolce collection

A piece from the Dolce collection

The showroom was a mix of awes as champagne flowed and nearly every lady in the group tried on every strand on display.

The sorting room was the highlight and culmination of the day. Here pearls are graded, sorted, and polished. Interesting thing about the polishing, however, it was referred to as a "washing." I called it polishing but was corrected by our escort who said, "No, not polishing, washing." So I guess she must have meant that the pearls were washed in Japanese tumble-polishers with walnut shell, the most common polishing compound for pearls.

Polishing freshly harvested South Sea pearls

Walnut shell polishers

The sorting room was abuzz with activity as pearls were being sorted for auction by Paspaley's Japanese partners. They were being separated into auction lots which were sure to solicit bids at September's auction in Hong Kong.

Separating pearls into lots for auction at the Paspaley sorting center in Darwin

Separating pearls into lots for auction

While in the sorting room we were treated to a viewing of a few of Paspaley's private collection of gems. The centerpiece of the collection was the famous Paspaley pearl. A 20.4 mm pearl that is perfect in every grading respect. Perfect round with intense luster and overtone. Nicholas Paspaley was actually on the pearling ship the day the pearl was harvested. We took turns holding it and examining it from each identical angle.

The Paspaley Pearl

The Paspaley Pearl

Michael Bracher showed up near the end of the tour. Michael is the manager of pearl distribution for the Paspaley Pearls Group, and the nephew of Nicholas Paspaley. We had met about 2 years ago in Hong Kong. I was able to sneak away from the group to catch up with him for a while.

He had a few questions about our business, and mentioned seeing a recent article on our akoya farming venture. He congratulated me and then I told him about last month's devastating typhoon, and the effects it had on the operation.

Michael talked a bit about pearl treatments, and how Paspaley was preparing to launch a campaign on treatment disclosures. GIA could now test for any and all treatments, and consumers should have a right to know. He intimated that anything coming out of Japan today had been subjected to treatments of some kind, and these pearls should not be as valuable as pearls completely in their natural luster state.

As this was the last stop of the day, we made our way back to the hotel. Several of the group went out, but pickup was a 6:45 am to go to Kuri Bay, and this is what I had been waiting two weeks to see. So I turned in at 10.
Day 12

At 6:45 am we left the hotel for a small airport where "Pearl Air International" was waiting with a seaplane to transport us to Kuri Bay.

Group in front of Paspaley's plane

The 2-hour flight covered some of the world's most rugged terrain - the real outback. It stretched as far as the eye could see, and only disappeared over water - beautiful iridescent blue water that looked so inviting from our altitude of 9,500 feet.

flying to Kuri Bay over the outback

Arriving in Kuri Bay we had an up-close view of this water and learned that it was not as inviting as it seemed. Sharks, stingers, poisonous sea snakes, and saltwater crocodiles were prevalent. Nobody swims in Kuri Bay, and the people there are full of disaster stories. Apparently nearly everything in the water can kill you. This may be an exaggeration, but swimming is certainly not recommended.

Ship Paspaley II from the air

Paspaley II from the air

The seaplane was met by a small boat which took us to one of the operation ships, the Paspaley III, where we immediately opened a few shells, found pearls, and ate the pearl meat (adductor muscle) raw on the deck.

Harvesting a South Sea pearl directly from the oyster

Paspaley III

The Paspaley III is a model of efficiency with the entire operation running like clockwork and pin-point precision. The shells are brought in via the bottom level of the ship where they are coerced and held open, and packed into trays. These trays are then sent up to the grafting floor by a customized elevator system, where they are kept under a steady stream of water awaiting their turn on the grafting table.

Today all shells coming in had already been seeded, and the grafting operation consisted of removing a the new pearl, and inserting a new bead into the existing pearl sac ? if the shell was deemed healthy enough, and if the first pearl was considered fine enough. In second grafting, a piece of mantle tissue is not inserted into to gonad, so we did not get to see tissue selection.

Ten grafting technicians worked, five on either side of the room. They were supported by three young Aussies and one Japanese man who ran about delivering shell and retrieving shell that had been deemed unworthy for a second graft. They also collected the shell which had been seeded a second time, and placed them into panel nets for return to the sea.

The Paspaley III

Paspaley III
The slightly opened shells were delivered to the grafters who worked with precision and speed. They would first replace the small stake holding the valves slightly apart with a tool that served the same purpose but allowed more room to work. They would then use a small spatula to push the gills away from the gonad where a small incision was made ? directly over the existing pearl sac. The pearl was carefully removed and quickly examined. The grafter then made the final decision whether or not to introduce another nucleus into the existing sac.

While we observed the work, most of the shells were not re-nucleated. The discarded shells were sent down a conveyor belt to a floating platform where a young group of Australian teens work.

On paspaley boat shell on Conveyor

The shells were first opened completely and the guts removed. The edible adductor meat was separated and set aside. This meat is a delicacy and sells for over $100 per kilo. The shells were then trimmed of periostracum new-growth from the edges, and then also cleaned of marine growth. The shells were then packed into large steel barrels. Pinctada maxima MOP - ready for export!

MOP Packed and ready for export

The entire ship operates with a permanent crew of 32, and a support crew of 10. The crews work 7 days a week, and wake up at 5:00 am, every day. Their job is not one for the faint of heart, as they only get a couple of days off each month.

Before leaving the ship we relaxed in the technician's lounge drinking coffee, tea, and eating cake. We were able to examine the day's take. Large lustrous pearls were intermingled with hapless rejects. Some real gems were present. A large, 17.2 mm near-round with a light pink overtone caught my eye in particular, as well as a few outstanding free-form baroques with glowing iridescent edges and curves.

Reviewing the days SS pearl harvest

We boarded another small boat and headed to the land-based farm at the original Kuri Bay farm site. The original South Sea pearl farm of Australia, but only 50 years of history. Only a 45-minute boat ride from the Paspaley III, several of us sat on the bow and enjoyed the wind, the view, and the spray.

On the farm we shared an island lunch which was, once again, amazingly good. It seems as though the best food we have enjoyed on this trip so far is the food prepared by the cooks at remote farming locations.

Looking out over Kuri Bay

Kuri Bay: The launch-pad of the Australian SSP industry

After lunch we took a garbage can full of scraps onto a boat and drove to the center of the bay. There we began dumping the scraps into the water and watched a feeding frenzy take place. Sharks of all sizes and thousands of other fish descended upon the scraps in a feeding frenzy. We were able to lean out of the boat and grab hold of them as they fought over every last piece.

sharks eating scraps

The seaplane had come to our location earlier in the afternoon. We boarded from the boat, and took off again for Darwin.
Day 13

The last day of the two-week pearl tour! Today was the city-tour day... I passed. Darwin was such a fun town and great place to explore, but I did not really feel like sitting on a tour bus visiting gardens and museums (totally unrelated to pearls) for a day. I spent the day in Darwin talking to backpackers and locals, drinking beer and enjoying the weather.

Later that evening we had a group farewell dinner, hosted by Richard McLean and his wife. The 27 of us had a good time, talking about the last two weeks, taking pictures, laughing... it was a good way to end the trip.


Akira, Donna, Russell, Jeremy

The bus to the airport left the hotel at 11:30 pm. Only 26 short hours later I would be back in Los Angeles....
Fascinating! So, you're the Pearl-Guide Guy, huh? LOL Here's a little thing about Akira Hyatt.

I'm sorry. I'm limited on time this morning and could only spend a moment reading it. But, I know when I get home and can devote the time to it that it deserves, I'll have a real treat waiting for me at the end of the day. I can't wait! Thank you for spending so much time putting this together so we can all live vicariously through your travels, experiences, and adventures.
Go Jeremy! Thanks for an outstanding article. What fun.:)

You always have an interesting take on things. That's why I lurked and read your posts for a very long time. You should consider pulling together the best of this site for a book of collected pearl stories.

And, you should consider leading your own tour to China, where YOU are the expert!

Oh wow! You've added some pictures and text since I skimmed this this morning. Just wonderful! I feel like I there! I could almost see Blaire Blue Eyris shopping. I was surprised to see such a difference in the processing activites between the three places and I liked seeing the Tahitian Ministry facilities. What drives the local price so high? Tourism? I heard of another pearl curtain this weekend as a matter of fact. It's in some penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park, floor to ceiling windows with gauzy curtains embroidered with pearls. I'll read this again ... and again ... and again. Thank you for taking me on a little vacation to exotic pearl places with wonderful people.
That was fantastic to read, Jeremy! I could tell you and the others had a fab time exploring pearls and seeing all sorts of cool things. Thanks for writing that up and posting your pictures to share :)
What a treat! Thanks for writing this up and sharing your experience and thoughts with us.:)

Loved reading this Jeremy. I felt like I got to go along too. Pearls, planes, turquoise water, sharks, buses, dinners out, it sounds like you had a great time.
I don't know how many times I have looked at these pictures, read these words. Can't thank you enough for your big heart, sharing all this with all of us.