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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 21, 2006

Cultivating taste

By Paula Rath
Advertiser Staff Writer

Wine and pearls go together at tomorrow’s free Pearl Tasting event. Reservations are required.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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5 p.m. tomorrow

Hibiscus Room, Kahala Mall


Reservations required: 737-3303

An event can also be booked by calling Ke Kai Kealoha at 927-2343 or Riches Kahala at 737-3303.

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Ke Kai Kealoha

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The increasing popularity of black pearls has meant a growing number of counterfeiters. They dye akoya pearls or other materials to resemble black pearls.

  • Ask for a certificate of authenticity. 3 Pearls International has a "birth certificate" for each of its pearls.

  • Try the tooth test: Slowly and gently rub the pearl against the edge of your front tooth. If it feels like the finest sandpaper, it's real. If it's too smooth and slippery, it's a fake.

  • Be suspicious if the color, shape and size are uniform and too perfect. This does not happen in natural black pearls.

  • If it's too small, beware. Black pearls are 8 mm (about .31 inch) and larger.

  • Ask, "Did this pearl come from the black-lipped oyster?" The answer should be yes. If the salesperson doesn't know and can't find out, don't chance it.

    How to Choose the Right Pearl

  • Look for a color that enhances your eyes, skin and hair coloring.

  • Find a flattering shape, one that balances your features. For example, to balance a round face, choose a drop-shaped pearl.

  • Look for luster.

  • Look carefully at the surface quality - indentations imply a lower quality of pearl.

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    The islanders of Nukuoro cultivate and harvest a limited number of black pearls, which take three years to form in black-lipped oysters.

    Courtesy of Ke Kai Kealoha

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    Oddly enough, wine and black pearls have a lot in common. They both depend on the ideal confluence of climate and environment to create the finest vintage (or harvest), and their quality is enhanced by an expert — in one case, a winemaker; in another, a grafter.

    That's the basis for a new seminar being offered in Honolulu: Pearl Tasting, to educate attendees about the elements that go into making a fine wine or a spectacular pearl. Wines are tasted and the making of wines discussed. Pearls are shared and compared, but not swallowed, of course.

    A new Honolulu-based company called 3 Pearls International created the concept of the pearl tasting. And one partner, Ke Kai Kealoha of Mo'ili'ili, is particularly qualified to address the similarities between wine and pearls.

    Kealoha was a distributor of fine boutique wines. She then went to work with Common Heritage Corp., which pioneers sustainable technologies that use one of the earth's natural resources, deep ocean water, to establish self-sufficient communities that are environmentally, economically and culturally sustainable.

    Through her work, Kealoha came to know Nukuoro, a tiny island in Micronesia. The approximately 300 residents of Nukuoro own a pearl farm and expressed interest in working with Kealoha to market Micronesian pearls. To this end, Kealoha formed a partnership with Randy and Sheri Schmitt and Otto Moore in 3 Pearls International, with the goal of bringing the Nukuoro pearl harvest to the United States.

    The tiny island harvested only 4,000 pearls in 2005, and aims for 6,000 in 2006. Its maximum will be 10,000 to 12,000 pearls annually because of space limitations and a need to keep the waters clean. Nukuoro aims to maintain a small boutique operation, in contrast to French Polynesia, which harvests millions of tons of pearls a year.

    The remoteness of Nukuoro has an upside and a downside.

    Getting there can be a challenge. To keep the waters clean and free of fungus, disease and predators, no motorized boats are allowed, not even for the supply boats from Pohnpei, which are supposed to arrive weekly but often do not.

    Resisting the conveniences of modern life pays off, however: Nukuoro's climate, sun and natural tides provide an ideal environment for the black-lipped oysters to produce gorgeous pearls, Kealoha said. The tides provide food to the oysters with no need for introducing other nutrients.

    Add to this the talent of the second-generation grafter, Tyrone Tapu, who comes from Tahiti, and the dedicated and environmentally conscious farmers, and you've got a healthy, lustrous harvest of pearls.

    The grafter is as critical to the pearl as the winemaker is to the wine. First he picks only the best oysters — the quality of color in the "rainbow band" on the edge of each bivalve is an indicator of eventual pearl color. Once he selects an oyster, he plays surgeon, implanting a graft, or oyster membrane and a round bead of mussel shell into the host oyster to serve as nucleus of the pearl to be.

    The oysters are hung on strings in the ocean. Every few weeks Tapu checks them to see whether they have rejected the nucleus. It takes about three years for a pearl to fully form.

    A good grafter can get up to three pearls from each carefully cared-for oyster.

    Victoria Reventas of Kaimuki, an interior designer with the architectural firm Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo, heard about pearl tasting from a friend and thought it would make a great pau-hana event for co-workers. She called Kealoha to set it up.

    "I found there is an interesting bridge between wine and pearls," Reventas said. "The way they make pearls is fascinating, and I loved learning how wines are influenced by the environment."

    She also found it a fun way to buy pearls, with colleagues helping each other choose the perfect color and shape to flatter their faces.

    Calling a pearl black is a misnomer. The colors result from the rainbow band on the edge of the oyster. They come in a spectacular array, from pearl gray to deep eggplant, soft jade to deep emerald, pale pink to magenta, sky blue to indigo. As light catches the surface of the pearl, the hues can change dramatically.

    Black pearls are versatile. They can be worn with jeans or an evening gown. They also look great on men, as a ring or pendant.

    The Nukuoro pearls are sold by 3 Pearls International at Riches Kahala, Native Books/Na Mea Hawaii in Ward Warehouse, and the Honolulu Academy of Arts gift shop.

    Reach Paula Rath at prath@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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