Friday, June 15, 2012

Guns, Germs, Steel, and Pearls

I have been reading an excellent book - "Guns, Germs, and Steel" by Jared Diamond. The general aim of this book is to explain why it is that, throughout history, some groups of people came to dominate others. Diamond looks at underlying factors in natural history that have had a huge influence on how cultures develop, including geography, climate, availability of plants and large animals suitable for domestication, and even orientation of the continents. The author's deep familiarity with the various peoples of New Guinea provides a number of fascinating examples in addition to the more familiar contrast of European/Asian versus American cultures. If you have ever been puzzled by questions such as why it was that the aborigines of Australia were still living in the stone age into the 19th century or why a handful of Spaniards were able to destroy the Aztec empire of Central America, then I highly recommend this book.

We visited a pearl farm near the town of Rotoava on Fakarava atoll. They culture black pearls here, which range in colour from a creamy gray, through various metallic shades of gray, to green, purplish, and a dark gray/black. The process we saw is quite interesting - more akin to a dental or fertility clinic than a farm. 'Dream Pearls' buys three year old oysters from another outfit. These are maybe 4 inches across. They then select and cut open an oyster to supply the raw ingredients for pearl formation. This is excised from the body of shells whose 'mother of pearl' exhibits the desired colour for a pearl. Slivers of meat are removed with a scalpel and then divided by scalpel again into dozens of tiny fragments.

Another oyster is then selected and carefully pried open and held that way using what looks like a medical instrument that achieves the reverse function of a pair of pliers. Into this oyster is inserted a small plastic bead (maybe 5mm diameter?) that is first soaked in antiseptic. A sliver of oyster meat from the other oyster is next inserted adjacent to the plastic bead, which will then grow over the bead and (hopefully) form a nice round pearl the same colour as the donor's shell.

The host oyster has a hole drilled in it and it is then strung up between two layers of coarse plastic mesh and hung from a line off a pier at the end of the pearl farm building. It will remain there until a boat takes each mesh out into deeper water and suspends them from a float. The oysters spend 18 months hanging in the lagoon before being retrieved and re-opened. The pearl is extracted and graded and another larger (about 9mm) bead is inserted in its place to grow another larger pearl. No new material is added for this 2nd pearl. The process will take one more year after which the 2nd pearl is removed and the oyster harvested.

The operation employs about 10 people, as far as we could see. They process 3000 oysters a day. Nice pearls sell for anywhere from 30 to 100+ dollars depending on size and quality (e.g., how perfectly shaped they are, how luminous, etc.)

We are currently en route to Tahiti and expect to arrive at Point Venus early tomorrow morning. Position is 17 02 S 148 37 W. We have had a good breeze on this crossing and made nearly 150 miles in the first 24 hours in rolly conditions.

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