New Zealand’s iridescent abalone, known as paua, have long beenprized for their shells and their meat. Now a new industry is growingaround pearls from paua.
In the harbor near the pretty South Island village of Akaroa, RogerBeattie grows the blue, green hemispherical pearls that he hopes willone day become as sought after as the black pearls of Tahiti.
In the wild, pearls are the way mollusks scratch their itch by coatingany irritant with the nacre or mother of pearl that it secretes. But sorare are these natural pearls that human intervention now crowing a pearl in the univalve that is New Zealand’s Haliotis iris, or the black foot abalone, is tricky. The sea snail, whichlives in rocky, coastal areas at depths between one and fifteen meters, is a fussy eater, reacts badly to stress, is verymobile, and is a hemophiliac.
To prompt a paua into making a pearl, an insert is affixed to the paua’s shell (some inserts poke through, some areattached with special glue). The shape of the insert will dictate the ultimate shape of the pearl. Once the insert is beneaththe mantle, the paua begins to overlay this nucleus with its nacre. The luster and color of the pearls depends on thethickness and quality of the nacre the paua secretes over the insert.
Wild paua are nucleated, as the process is called, after they have been harvested at 125 mm. The nucleation processesmust be done under extremely carefully; a single nick to the hemophiliac paua’s black foot will kill it; too much stress andpaua will not cover the insert.
When the paua are harvested two to three years later, the meat is removed and sold, and the pearl is cut out from theinside of the shell. Roger Beattie’s team will select and separate them into eight different colors, sizes ranging from 10 to15 millimeters in diameter and four different grades of pearls.
To ready the paua pearl for use in jeweler, the insert is removed, the back of the pearl is filled and a matching piece ofshell attached to the back and the back of the shell is covered with another piece of shell, producing a pearl known as a maybe pearl.
For the two to three years, it takes to grow a pearl, it is a delicate balancing act of clean water, nutritious food, and goodweather. Says Beattie.
“You think you’d get it wired after a few years, but it’s an elusive thing.
“In order to tempt buyers to the little-known pearl, its individuality is emphasized. Each of Beattie’s customers is given aprovenance certificate with the details of which diver first plucked the wild paua and exactly which bit of New Zealandwater it came from and when it was harvested in the wild, as well as the pearl farm where it grew its pearl. The size,shape grade and color of each pearl are also noted, and each of Beattie’s brands of pearls is given an identificationnumber. “In a homogenous world everyone wants to be different,” says Beattie.US gemologist and pearl expert Antoinette Matlins says the international success of the black Tahitian pearls has helpedthe New Zealand pearls.
“People have become much more interested in exotic color pearls,” she says. “So, the market has now changedsufficiently in terms of [understanding] that pearl no longer means round, classic, white. It can mean interesting shapesand lots of different, interesting colors.” eats the vast majority of pearls.