The Pearl Farms of The Gambiers: Robert Wan's Legacy

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Wonderful islands of the Gambiers, with a temperate climate that has a distinct cold season, fertile land where everything grows, lagoons, islands, atolls, and so few inhabitants... The Catholic mission has left its mark; here and there, a church, a convent porch, a chapel scattered among the lush vegetation.

The Mangareva Church

The altar of the Mangareva church is known for its rich decoration made of mother-of-pearl and its pearl inlays. It is here that Robert Wan set up his pearl farm, probably the largest and best-organized farm in Polynesia. A regular plane connects these remote islands to Tahiti once a month. But Robert Wan has his private plane that serves his farms once a week. In fact, between Papeete and the Gambiers, there is also the atoll of Anuraro, and recently he took control of J.C Brouillet's island at Marutea.

Life on the Pearl Farm

The residential buildings house Japanese grafters (three to five depending on the time of year), the Wans (François or Robert, together or separately, at least one of them is always there) and some managers, usually from mainland France. They gather at the same table every evening, served by a woman from Mangareva. It's a world as austere as a convent, dedicated to work. Video and magazines are the only distractions. Staff come from Rikitea every morning in a truck that picks them up: about forty Polynesians, men and women who will handle the sorting and brushing tasks. The men will dive to put grafted mother-of-pearls back in water or bring back for checking those grafted a few months ago. Everyone boards a very wide raft-like boat each morning to reach the pearl farm built on stilts in the middle of the lagoon. Along the way, one can spot collectors of young oysters scattered here and there, forming real float banks. The farm itself has long wooden jetties that provide easy access to the tagged grafted mother-of-pearls, sorted by grafting dates.

Daily Operations

The activity is relentless, the monitoring work never-ending. The recently grafted mother-of-pearls risk rejecting the graft after a few weeks. They must be sorted, put back in water, and regularly cleaned and brushed. The young oysters being raised also require a lot of care. They are sorted, sized, and put back in water. The laboratory consists of large tanks filled with seawater where the mother-of-pearls are stored before grafting. On small individual tables, the grafters operate all day with precise and delicate gestures. The oyster is opened, the graft is placed, then closed. The assistant cuts pieces of the mantle and brings them to each grafter. The grafted mother-of-pearls are individually slid into mesh bags that allow for easy detection of rejections.

Life on the pearl farm

Meals and Care for Grafters

Lunch is on-site at noon. The cuisine, mainly based on fish and rice (fish brought from Marutéa or Anuraro), has a more or less Japanese touch intended to please the grafters. Because they are pampered, these grafters who tirelessly repeat the same gestures. On them, their technique, their skill, depends on each harvest.


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