Once a month, a boat brings provisions to a tiny Pacific atoll called Marutea in the outlying southeastern portion of French Polynesia, better known as Tahiti. This is the only contact with the outside world the island’s 50 or so inhabitants have.
That’s because the island is private property, bought by Hong Kong businessman Robert Wan in 1986 from Frenchman Jean-Claude Brouillet. How did Brouillet come into possession of a South Sea island in the first place?
The Polynesian government sold Marutea to Brouillet in 1974 on the condition that he start an industry there. Brouillet chose pearl farming. Every August since 1976, workers at the island’s lagoon fishery have harvested, on average, some 25,000 wearable natural black cultured pearls that when round range in size from 9 to 13mm, and are occasionally as large as 16mm.
Marutea’s pearl crop is a significant share of the world’s annual black pearl production, perhaps 40 percent. And Wan owns at least one other farm as large as the one he bought from Brouillet and controlling interests in a few more sprinkled throughout Polynesia.
ISLANDS OF PEARL PLENTY
The Marutea black pearl farm is the best-known of the dozens of large and small South Seas black pearl culturing ventures, most of them found in Tahiti (hence the name, Tahitian cultured pearl). Marutea, like most island pearl farm operations, is remote, located 1,000 miles from Papeete, the capital of Tahiti. Here Marutea’s black beauties are flown, a seven-hour trip by small plane, after harvesting and grading, to be handed over to their American and European distributors.
With at least 50 percent of total cultured black pearl production coming from Wan-owned or Wan-controlled farms, the market has little to fear in the way of turbulence. The only threats are from nature.
But except for hurricanes and such, things are just as you’d expect them in the South Seas: smooth and tranquil.