In 1976, an Air New Zealand DC-10 arrived in Rarotonga carrying a youthful Australian family on the adventure of a lifetime.
Disenchanted with the duties of a suburban housewife and never seeing a husband that worked all hours as an electrical engineer, my mother rebelled and escaped to the little known Islands of the South Pacific with a friend and mentor. Having previously visited Norfolk & Lord Howe Islands, the Duo arrived in Rarotonga in 1975. The effect was immediate and my mother realised she had found our new home.
Within a year, to the chagrin of friends and neighbours, my family abandoned the suburbs of Melbourne for an unknown future on an unheard of Pacific island.
Since that time, we have built a company specialising in Cook Islands Pearls.
Relocating to the northern group Island of Penrhyn in 1977, my parents collected natural pearls for European and Asian markets. As fate would have it, by the late eighties, the cultured black pearl industry had become sustainable on the Island of Manihiki.
Our family operation expanded to include this exotic new gem and we became the first local company to specialise in ready to wear Cook Islands Black Pearl Jewellery.
Today, we operate jewellery stores on Rarotonga and Aitutaki and our specialty remains Cook Islands Black Pearls. I welcome you to experience our innovative jewellery lines and become part of our ongoing family adventure.
I take this opportunity to bid you a warm Kia Orana and welcome to my adopted home, Rarotonga. My name is Ben Bergman, Pearl Jewellery Designer and Director of Bergman & Sons, Black Pearl Jewellers of the Cook Islands.
Facing Future: The Evolution of the Cook Islands Cultured Pearl Industry.
For 5000 years they have been an obsession of mankind.
They grace the necks of the rich & famous, royalty and celebrity, Emperors and their consorts. Entire civilizations coveted them, myths exploring their origins, virtues and attributes exist in all ancient writings.
Some believed that pearls were a link to heaven.
Today the global cultured pearl market is valued in excess of USD500 million (all loose pearls produced by world pearling regions) and on a tiny atoll called Manihiki in the Northern Cook Islands, a resilient group of pearl farmers play their part.
The Cook Islands Pearl industry dates back to the 18th century when Black Lipped Mother of Pearl Shell (Pinctada Margaritifera) were collected from the northern group atolls of Manihiki & Penrhyn by European traders for buttons and inlaid furniture, a huge fashion statement of the time. During the 1950’s, spat (larvae oyster shell) collection experiments were carried out in Manihiki lagoon to determine shell farming & export sustainability but it was not until the early 1970’s that an Australian, Peter Cummings, established the first modern cultured pearl farm.
Cummings farm lasted 10 years, producing magnificent large silver/white pearls. Price regulations and industry domination by the Japanese eventually rendered the farm unprofitable. During this time, in neighboring French Polynesia, significant production of black pearls had begun and in 1986 the Cook Islands Government supported the development of a modern black pearl industry centering on Manihiki.
In collaboration with a Chinese/Tahitian, Yves Tchen Pan & local families including the renowned Tekake Williams, pearl farms were established with the first harvests of fabulous black pearls arriving on the market in 1988/89. Taking advantage of a buoyant world market, The Cook Islands Black Pearl Industry quickly gained momentum and by 2000 was generating USD12 million per annum in export revenue and had established itself as the second largest world supplier of south sea black pearls.
Black Pearl Boutiques on Rarotonga evolved, offering a diverse range of jewellery, from world class to souvenir. Finding immediate appeal, Black Pearls quickly became a favoured item for visitors to the Cook Islands. But as with any new business sector, the industry of pearls has not escaped its share of heartache.
On November 1st, 1997, a devastating Cyclone struck Manihiki. The worst storm in living history, Cyclone Martin was said to have generated waves of such height that they swept over this small Island, killing 19 and devastating a majority of the surface infrastructure.
The memories of that shattering day are still fresh in the minds of all those who remain on Manihiki and will forever be remembered as a mournful chapter in the history of the Island of Pearls.
In 2001 the world black pearl market was affected by unregulated, over production from French Polynesia, (who supply 98% of saltwater cultured black pearls) reducing average world prices and driving many farmers, both Cook Islands & Tahitian, out of the industry.
More recently world prices have begun to make a recovery. Lower production levels and controlled exports from French Polynesia have once again led to an increase in world demand for this truly exotic gem.
Today, the global profile of cultured pearls is at an all time high. In the worldwide jewellery industry, pearl jewellery ranks third in consumer preference, surpassed only by gold & diamonds.
Black Pearls feature in the collections of world jewellery & fashion houses Tiffany, Cartier, Mikimoto & Louis Vuitton. They grace the covers of international fashion & jewellery magazines, their magnetism, unrivaled history & tradition of romance impossible to escape.
Far removed from the glamour of world jewellery icons, on small groups of far flung, palm fringed south pacific atolls, regional & local industry leaders regularly band together to ensure the secure future of this magnificent ocean gem. Their challenges are multi tiered, their lasting efforts yet another chapter in the enduring legend of pearls.