Cook Islands Cultured Black Pearls

Cook Islands cultured black pearls are exquisitely rare gems perfected by nature in the pristine lagoon depths of the Northern Cook Islands. Hues of aubergine, green, silver, and blue reflecting the South Pacific's subtle sea tones and a proud heritage. They are treasured for their lustrous beauty and nacre quality, and highly sought after for jewellery manufacture.

In Polynesian mythology, the black pearl was the first light on earth, given by the Creator to Tane, god of harmony and beauty. The lustre of the pearl is reminiscent of the rainbow belonging to Rongo, the god of peace, who descended from the heavens on a rainbow. A thousand years later in Polynesia, pearls remain the most treasured of all gems found in the Pacific islands. Regarded as the queen of gems, they appeal to women worldwide as a fashion item.

The Cook Islands long heritage in pearling started in the 1980s when the lagoons of Manihiki and Penrhyn (Tongareva) were harvested for natural pearls and for the black-lipped mother-of-pearl shells. Although pearl cultivation began in the 1970s, commercial pearl farming did not start until the 1800s on Manihiki and then extended later to the islands of Penrhyn and Rakahanga. These atolls, lying over 1,200 kilometres from the capital island of Rarotonga in the vast blueness of the Pacific, are some of the remotest inhabited places on earth and home to communities of less than 350 inhabitants. Today, Manihiki, is the heart of the cultured pearl industry of the Cook Islands.

The shimmering beauty of these exquisite yet subtle ocean gems belie the hard working and resilient nature of a hardy people eking out an existence on a low-lying atoll vulnerable and exposed to the elements and cyclones. Since 2000, a disease outbreak in the lagoon and falling international pearl prices have brought about a downward spiral in pearl production to alarming levels.

In 2006, the government resurrected the Cook Islands Pearl Authority (CIPA) to rejuvenate the pearl industry. In shaping the future for Cook Islands pearls, CIPA recognized the need to undertake industry reforms as well as develop a new marketing strategy. The cornerstone of the marketing strategy launched in 2009, entailed creating a new brand to reposition premium Cook Islands cultured pearls in the high-end international jewellery market. The aim is to attain higher price points which will benefit the farmer as well as generate improved economic returns to the national economy.

Strict benchmarks and standards must be met to qualify under the AVAIKI Cook Islands Pearls brand - only pearls of A-B-C grades that are produced by accredited farmers who meet the requirements for environmentally sustainable farming and quality control will qualify. AVAIKI represents premium Cook Islands pearls of certified integrity. The small annual crop makes them a truly rare gem of assured quality. They are available only through a network of accredited retailers, jewellers and outlets in the Cook Islands and overseas. The brand is managed by CIPA on behalf of accredited farmers.

According to legend, the name "Avaiki" denotes the ancestral and spiritual homeland of the Polynesian people as well as evoking its seafaring heritage as the ancient Polynesians traversed and settled the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean over nine centuries ago. Cook Islands pearls which do not carry the AVAIKI brand are marketed and sold as "Cook Islands pearls".

Article and photos by George Ellis,