07/11/2011 03:35 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Journey Through the World of Tahitian Pearls

Tourists the world over flock to Tahiti not just to bathe in the beloved sun, but to stock up on the island's shiniest export: pearls. Unique in shape and vividly colorful, each pearl is singular, reflecting the glittering lagoons of French Polynesian coral islands.

Photo: Ariston Anderson Wan Pearls

The Musée de la Perle, while a thinly veiled retail store for luxe pearl pioneer Robert Wan, is a great place to start your trek in Tahiti. Walk past the glass cases of Wan pearls , unless you feel compelled to buy a gorgeous strand with a brand name behind it. The left and right wings of the small center offer an exhibit to discover the visual history of the pearl.

The Maison exists to help support Tahiti's number two source of income for the island (after tourism). All pearls for export must pass through the Maison where a giant X-Ray machine scans tubs of pearls to make sure the coat meets the required 0.8 mm thickness - a sign that it has been cultured in Polynesian waters for at least a year and a half.

First, learn how a pearl is made: A grain of sand slips into an oyster fixed on a coral reef. Over time, the oyster wraps the grain in successive layers of aragonite, giving birth to a rare pearl. The process was based largely on luck until the 1960s, when French Polynesia adopted the art of grafting then used in Japan. By inserting a small piece of pearl graft tissue into the oyster, pearl farmers became more important than pearl divers.

Pearls that don't pass the test, or are overly flawed otherwise, are bundled up and crushed to dust. Choose pearls as if choosing a rare gem. Don't just rely on common strands, but know that you can make a gorgeous piece of jewelry with one perfect pearl. When buying pearls, first take into account what shape you're looking for. Round doesn't necessarily mean better, as Drop, Oval, Baroque or Semi Baroque pearls can make for lovely hanging jewelry.

Tahitian pearls take on a variety of colors, from aubergine to green to gray to black. Japanese tourists flock to the island to pick up Peacock pearls, green on the outside and pink toward the center. European markets typically favor bluer shades. It's all a matter of personal taste. It is key when choosing pearls to look for luster - how the pearl absorbs and reflects the light. A dull pearl is a dead pearl.

Next, examine the pearl for dots and imperfections. While a flawless pearl is ideal, Grade B pearls, with a few marks throughout, are also considered a high-quality find. Consumers can find much larger pearls in the Grade C and D range, heavily marked or circled pearls, at lower prices if size is of importance.

Pick up a custom cleaning cloth for your purchases gratis at the Maison. Pearls are meant to be worn, as Tahitian pearls rehydrate on skin contact. Pearls stored in a dark jewelry box will quickly lose their radiance. And avoid perfume, hairspray and chlorine around your pearls as any acid can destroy their exterior.

Now, on to the purchasing. Art Or Tahiti is an unassuming shop in a strip mall. Despite its unpretentious exterior, however, my mates and I found it to be easily the best place to purchase pearls in Tahiti. Owner Thierry Poilvet sells a variety of handcrafted pieces in the front, from gold drop earrings to diamond encircled rings. Customers can choose their own pearls and have Poilvet set them according to their designs in his workshop in the back. A team of artisans work on a variety of pieces daily. After designing a necklace and a pair of earrings, I drew a pair of safety pins that I'd been wanting as earrings and they fashioned them in gold with a two-day turnaround.

I bought a giant four-year-old baroque pearl to string on a gold wire necklace at an unheard of value. It always shocks people when I tell them the marble-sized object around my neck is a pearl.