He who would search for pearls must dive below.
John Dryden, “Introduction to Antony and Cleopatra,” All for Love, 1678.
“Neal rattled on like this; he was overjoyed and exuberant. He and I suddenly saw the whole country like an oyster for us to open; and the pearl was there, the pearl was there.”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road
My first two weeks on a black pearl farm in French Polynesia felt like starting in on a great movie from the middle – all exposition, no conflict, and barely a clue of how the story began or where it would end up. With the sun on my back and the wind – that gentle, warm breeze found only in the tropics, of course – in my face, I went out on the boat every day with Laurent, Heiarri, and Aristide, helping when and where I could as they moved basket after basket of oysters from the lagoon closer to shore to be cleaned. I was, much like my four-year old self, full of questions. How does a pearl grow? When are they fully grown? How did the oysters get in the basket? Indeed, my only glimpse of a pearl came when Laurent found one on the bottom of the boat and asked if I wanted it. If I want it? What kind of question is that?
That all changed when Josh, owner of the farm, arrived the Sunday before the harvest. We’d be spending my last week on Ahe getting our hands properly dirty – working long hours, hauling in baskets, and seeing just what these oysters had been up to the last eighteen months. I couldn’t wait. But what made the harvest even more meaningful – more than getting to see fully grown pearls emerge and new nuclei be grafted in to start the process all over again – was the fact that Josh had brought with him a prospective pearl buyer, a 26-year old Canadian woman named Kristin. Having graduated from the Gem Institute of America with a concentration in pearls – who knew that was even possible? – pearls are her thing. In the last three years, she has started her own business, opened a luxury retail store in downtown Vancouver and travelled to Bali every year to hand-select her South Sea pearls. This would be her first time designing with Tahitian pearls.
At the end of each day, Josh would clean the day’s harvest and take them to Kristin. She worked on a long counter with windows that propped open to the reef below and as the waves lapped outside, she would spread the pearls out on a towel and begin to sort through them, separating by size and sheen – gold, pink, blue, green – into potential sets of strands and earrings. Watching Kristin from a distance, I thought to myself, what a beautiful picture of completion. The ability to view the journey these pearls would take, from the mouth of the oyster to the hand of the grafter to the eye of designer, who would carry them 5,000 miles to a store in Vancouver where women could purchase them. Kristin showed us pictures of the South Sea strands she had on display in her shop and although the price tags were enough to make my heart skip a beat, it was cool for all of us to see where much of this particular harvest would end up.
My last night on Ahe, as Heiarii, Timmy, Pete, Peter and I sat around drinking red wine and playing poker, Heiarii asked if Josh or Laurent had given me any pearls before they left for Chile the day before. I won’t lie, there was some small part of me that had been hoping this would happen, so I did my best to feign surprise and give my closest attempt at an innocent “no?” The next morning, with just an hour to go before leaving for the aiport, Heiarii took me up the narrow wooden ladder to the office of the farm. There he unlocked a cabinet and brought out several small plastic bags. Each held what seemed to me a small fortune’s worth of pearls. I’d get six.
Remembering Kristin earlier in the week, I pored over each set of pearls with the utmost attention, choosing each pair carefully, holding them up to my ears to get Heiarii’s opinion. After a week of looking at the pearls from afar, peering over the grafting stations and around the corner of where Josh and Kristin sat, it felt strange to hold them in my hand, to think that these were mine. Indecision wasn’t a fault here but actually merited, giving the process the weight these pearls deserved. What sheen to choose? The traditional black or something with a bit more color? With these six and the one Laurent had given me, I’d have just enough for a pair for my mother, a pair for my sister, and a pair and necklace for me. It all worked perfectly.
“I’m looking for Eric?” I said, a little short of breath from sprinting from the bus station.
“What can I do for you?” An attractive man asked, looking over at me from behind the counter.
“My name is Candace, my friend Heiarii at Kamoka Farms told me…”
“Of course,” Eric said, interrupting me. “He just called. Said you were his future wife. Weird thing is, he sounded serious. Damn, what did you do to him? He seemed heartbroken.”
Heartbreak would have to wait. Right now, I had business to take care of. Eric said he was about to close up for the day but he’d take care of it for me anyway. While he drilled holes into the pearls and secured posts in place, I got to know his friends in the shop. The volcano in Iceland had just erupted a few days earlier and sent the world into a tizzy. The talk of the shop was travel…or lack thereof. A Danish man sat at a computer, lamenting his third cancelled flight in two days. Within minutes, Eric left me with three small black velvet bags and the satisfaction of watching my pearls come full circle, completing their own journey from oyster to owner.
A couple of days later, I reached Minneapolis – via a 36-hour stopover in a scruffy LA hostel – and easily found Gail and Russ, my best friend’s aunt and uncle who would be letting me, a road-weary, scraggly backpacker, catch a ride with them to Iowa for the wedding. It was somewhere between Minnesota and Spirit Lake, however, that I instinctively reached up to my new earrings and felt nothing but the oversized – and devastatingly empty – pierced hole in my right ear. No pearl. Just skin. My stomach dropped and I caught my breath. I looked over at Gail and said quietly, “I’ve lost a pearl.” We made a frantic search of the car but something told me it wasn’t there. I remembered putting on a hooded sweatshirt in Minneapolis, pulling it off, putting it back on and knew that pearl could be anywhere by now. Cue that heartbreak after all.
That night, I conveyed the news to my mother.
“We’ll just have the pearl you have left made into a ring,” she said simply, finding the silver lining faster than an optimistic weatherman. “We’ll do it for your birthday.”
Why hadn’t I thought of that? Leave it to a mother to stave off an emotional disaster faster than you can say “meltdown.”
So on my birthday, I turned to Google Images for a little inspiration. I didn’t know what I wanted, only a vague idea of a simple design and a wide band, something that would suit my long and gangly piano hands. What I found at first didn’t impress, delicately shaped things with florets of tiny diamonds clustered around a white pearl. Then I stumbled across a band of hammered silver, the dimples and dips of its beveled texture a little more my style. I typed in “hammered silver pearl rings” and on the third page of results, I found it.
Picture in hand, I went to a nearby jewelry store known for good work at affordable prices. I showed them the pearl, handed over the picture, and explained what I had in mind. The woman assisting me took a few notes, tucked the pearl into a small, numbered manila envelope and set it in a pile of “pending” design work. “It’ll be a few weeks,” she said nondescriptly.
Ever short of patience, I tried not to think about it but couldn’t help asking about its progress when I went back in later that month for an appraisal on a different ring. That did the trick. Two days later, I got a call telling me my ring was ready.
When I opened that little envelope and the ring slid out, I knew at once what it must feel like to be engaged. There was my ring, an exact replica of what I’d shown them. Once I got over the shock that they’d been able to create it, I thought of all that this ring represents. What is engagement but the elation of looking down at a ring on your finger and feeling life slide into place? If, over the last two years, my life mantra truly has been “The world is your oyster,” this ring is merely a symbol of my commitment to that cause. A promise to continue my pursuit, to follow the world, wherever it may lead me.
A wedding ring is a celebration of life spent together thus far, a reminder of what has brought you together and a promise of what’s to come, and as I twist my ring round and round my finger, I can think of nothing different. I stare at its dark, round lustre and think of the days spent on Ahe, watching Laurent break open the baskets of oysters, Aristide and Heiarii cleaning and propping them open, Timmy and Josh taking out pearls and grafting in new nuclei. I think of Kristin arranging each of the pearls into strands and sets of earrings, and I think of myself doing my small part in the harvest – drilling holes in the oysters and looping them into new baskets.
What a journey this pearl has made, and I couldn’t be more thrilled at the destination.