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French Polynesia is known for its creamy coconut-milk fish salad, its Instagram-worthy overwater bungalows and its natural “aquariums” — crystal-clear lagoons that double as a playground for novice snorkelers and seasoned divers alike.
But during a recent trip to Tahiti’s islands, I had the opportunity to learn about another thriving industry (the country’s second most lucrative, behind tourism): pearls.
There are countless places to buy pearls on Tahiti’s islands — in shopping malls, at hotel gift shops, in local markets or at cruise ship ports. But at Robert Wan Pearl Museum, located in the heart of Tahiti’s capital city, Papeete, guests can also learn about the fascinating process behind creating them.
Pearls, the only gem born from a living being, are formed within black-lip pearl oysters, bivalves that are found in the reefs of South Pacific. These marine animals produce pearls ranging in size, luster, shape and color, but the most popular — and commonly seen throughout French Polynesia — are either dark gray or a mix of green, gray and purple, which is commonly referred to as “peacock.”
Clients visiting the small museum can learn about the process of making Tahitian pearls, from collecting and breeding the oysters to grafting (inserting a spherical “nucleus” within the oyster), culturing the pearls and, finally, harvesting them. The entire yearslong process comes to life at the museum, thanks to its life-size models, exhibits, galleries and displays. The museum itself is small and can be visited in about 30 minutes, and there’s also a small showroom in case guests want to squeeze in a bit of shopping before they leave.