French Polynesia, year 2020
The skeptics said it couldn’t be done. The nay-sayers of 10 years previous said the absurdly spaced atolls and islands of French Polynesia could never unite, could never organize to save their own industry.
Farmers were said to be too independent, too prone to anarchy. But in their eyes the buyers were at fault, always nibbling at the price. And together farmers and buyers agreed that the blame surely belonged to the government. The government repeatedly answered that when everyone was ready, they would support the cause.
At the beginning of 2010, 80 percent of the industry had closed shop. There had already been a massive reverse migration from the pearl farming islands back to the overcrowded urban areas of Tahiti and the high islands. As workers lost their jobs, they had to follow the money to support their families.
As 80 percent approached 90 percent, desperation became the catalyst for change. Unifying became easier with fewer players in the game. Most of the large industrial farms had closed down or shifted operations to Fiji and parts of Asia where the cost of production was less.
The farms that kept producing were smaller, leaner operations with more potent resolve to succeed. The speculators and business people who had invested in Tahitian pearl farming when times were good were swallowed by the drop in prices but those who loved pearls did everything they could to stay in business.
The farmers organized. They worked hand in hand with the government to build the giant virtual funnel that we know in 2020 as the Vaha Rahi (VR). All pearls that were produced had to run through this funnel. To leave the country, pearls needed to be classified, X-rayed, and sealed by the VR.
It took about a year to work out the kinks in the system. There was the question of how the local pearl dealers would fit in. They were the ones who had the networks and relationships to sell the pearls, so they couldn’t be cast out. But the way they worked had to change, and it did.
Then there was the logistical impossibility of one group of people sorting, grading, and pricing every pearl produced in French Polynesia. The VR quickly realized it had to verify the work done by third parties and not do everything in house.
These issues and others were worked out. Prices climbed back to a point were Tahitian farmers could make living. Wholesalers and retailers around the world had their confidence restored, fueling marketing and hence demand. Quotas were fixed as in the Australian pearl industry. Small structures thrived and workers moved back to the outer islands to pursue the culturally rich and wholesome practice of Tahitian pearl farming.
Josh Humbert has been passionately involved in farming Tahitian pearls for over 18 years. From being one of the first non-Japanese pearl grafters in the country, to weathering two industry crashes and selling internationally, pearls remain his first love. Reach Josh at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.kamokapearls.com.