Tahitian black pearls. They're some of the world's most captivating, most sought-after gems, and they're the stuff of legend since real Tahitian black pearls can only be found in The Islands of Tahiti. If you're traveling throughout The Islands of Tahiti, there's no better souvenir — after all, you're here at the source, so you're definitely going to want to indulge in some Tahitian pearl shopping. And here's the good news: Besides treasures for moms, you'll also find designs for kids and dads, too, so that everyone in the family can get in on the hunt. But pearl shopping can be overwhelming with so many dealers scattered throughout the islands, so follow our cheat sheet and you'll be an expert in no time. Here's everything you need to know about buying black pearls in Tahiti.
The first thing to know: While they're commonly called "black pearls," not all Tahitian pearls are actually black. A more accurate term would be "Tahitian cultured pearls," as they come in a rainbow of hues, from pink to eggplant to sky blue to vivid emerald green. Besides their variations in color, Tahitian pearls can range in shape and size, too. There are the perfectly round pearls. There are the baroque pearls, known for their irregular shapes and varied textures. And then there are circle pearls, which are wrapped with colorful lines.
Want to learn about the history of Tahitian pearls? Head to the Robert Wan Pearl Museum, one of the world's only museums dedicated to Tahitian cultured pearls. It is located on the outskirts of downtown Papeete on the island of Tahiti. A tip: If you call the museum, the staff will send a car to pick you up, then bring you back to your hotel or your ship. Everyone in the family will love the displays and dioramas that tell the history not only of pearl cultivation but also of the history of The Islands of Tahiti. Wander through the store. You won't find more beautiful — or more expensive — pearls anywhere else. After all, the more perfect the surface the higher the value and this is truly the creme de la creme of Tahitian black pearl shopping. (Robert Wan also has another location on Bora Bora as well as outposts in many hotels.)
While you'll find some of the best shops for Tahitian pearls on the main island of Tahiti, these coveted beauties are farmed in the far-flung atolls of French Polynesia. The two spots where you'll find the most pearl farms are the Tuamotu Archipelago and the Gambier Archipelago, but there are pearl farms all over the islands that will allow you to stop in for a visit. One popular spot is the Huahine Pearl Farm, which welcomes guests from Paul Gauguin Cruises via outrigger canoe. It's fascinating to see how the pearls are created. Expert farmers carefully pry open the oyster shell and skillfully insert a spherical nucleus. The oyster is then closed back up and returned to the water so that a pearl can be formed around the foreign object. It can take more than two years to create a single pearl. Fun fact: The color of the pearl depends on the color of the oyster lips, so pearl experts can tell exactly where your pearls are from.
In downtown Papeete, you'll find the best prices at Le Marché — the main market. On the ground floor are stands selling affordable necklaces, rings and more. Want to have an adventure? Head upstairs to Mihiarii on the second floor of Le Marche, where the shopkeepers will present you with buckets of pearls so that you can choose your favorites and have them strung into a necklace or other classic jewelry designs. (Mihiarii also has a second location a couple of blocks away.) A slightly more expensive option at Le Marché is Manapearl, where you can choose your own pearls to put into more modern designs.
Throughout Papeete, you'll also find pearl boutiques selling jewelry that's already made. Tahiti Pearl Market isn't exactly a market, but it has beautiful pieces. (The flagship is at 25 rue Colette in Papeete, and there's a second location on Bora Bora as well as outposts in many hotels.) For edgy, contemporary designs, there's Robles (4 Rue Jean-Gilbert). For younger, less expensive looks, check out Matira Creation (16 Rue Jeanne d'arc). Herman Perles is another upscale name to know, with a shop on the island of Moorea and also on the m/s Paul Gauguin. And here's the good news: No matter where you shop, there's nothing like bringing home a Tahitian pearl (or two or three) to help you remember your time in paradise.
By Laura Begley Bloom