Avaiki pearls cook islands manihiki lagoon starfish in situ

Lust and lustre | Cook Islands pearls | Avaiki perfection | Made in Manihiki

Cool, understated elegance that belies inner sparkle and sizzle.

The Cook Islands’ pearl industry is turning to fashion to put its lustrous lollies back on the map, reports Susan Skelly.

 The Cook Island’s shimmering pearls are about to have their moment in the sun as Italian designer Daniela Cicero works them into the high-end Kalia range for the Style Pasifika Collection destined for Milan and Dubai as well as North American and Australian fashion capitals.

Cicero, who has worked for Ermenegilda Zegna, Giorgio Armani, Moschino, Dolce & Gabbana and Versace, fell for the region when she came to deliver a gown made from New Zealand merino wool for the Style Pasifika designer showcase that coincided with the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

This year she has partnered with the Cook Islands Pearl Authority to shine a light on the exquisite pearls from the Manihiki and Penrhyn atolls of the northern Cook Islands, 1200km north of Rarotonga. A delegation from the authority arrived in Sydney earlier this year with a dazzling collection of rings, twisted triple-strand necklaces, and bracelets, in shimmering hues from silver to deep-sea greens, and a story of the Cook Island Pearl industry’s renewal after a devastating bacterial outbreak in 2001 that triggered losses of some NZ$34 million.

Cook-Island Manihiki Lagoon Pearls Circles

Circle pearls, with a unique fascination all their own.

Fifty shades of fabulous

The Cook Islands cultured pearl is produced from the “black lipped” Pinctada margaritifera. Most of the pearl farming in the Cook Islands is concentrated in the Manihiki Lagoon, which measures 8km x 4km. Manihiki produces some 100 different colours of pearl, although only 54 can be discerned by the naked eye. In higher quality pearls, the black body colour is infused with overtones of gold, green or peacock.

Pick of the crop is the Avaiki pearl. One perfect, round specimen, measuring 14mm, retails for around $5000. Cicero’s Style Pasifika capsule collection will comprise about 40 garments, with Avaiki pearls on some as an embellishment. In tandem there will be half a dozen Avaiki accessories, featuring baroques and semi baroque pearls as well as drop and button shapes.

Multi-hued dark coloured pearls will be used in the collection as well as some of the silvery blues. The collection will be highly exclusive; it is expected to be placed in September with agents in the Middle East, Europe, North America and Australia, who have their own premium clientele.  Each year Cicero will add a number of garments to the collection.

Getting top grades

Sheena Vaetoru has been grading pearls for 15 years. She was trained as a pearl seeding technician when she was 18. Grading the pearls you harvested was just part of the job.

“It was my least favourite part of that job,” said Vaetoru, who was part of the Sydney contingent. “So I’m somewhat surprised that I now do it for a living!” The Cook Island pearls are categorised into five key shapes:

  1. Round/semi-round
  2. Drops, ovals, and buttons: these are symmetrical and all lumped together in a category commonly referred to as DOBs. They may also be split into sub-categories of “long” and “short”.
  3. Semi-baroque: these are non-symmetrical, usually drops, ovals or buttons that are slightly irregular.
  4. Baroque: the non-symmetrical freeform shape.
  5. Circle: can be of all shapes but characterised by one or more circular grooves or rings.


Cook Islands pearls black sea cultured pearls sorting

Sorting and grading is all part of the process. There are 100-odd colours produced.

 A is for Avaiki

Avaiki pearls are produced under a strict value chain,” says Vaetoru. “At each step along the chain there is a standard and accreditation process that must be fulfilled. For example, accredited farms, accredited graders, wholesalers and retailers each must conform to a set of standards. This ensures that only the highest quality pearls are branded Avaiki.

“Not all farms are accredited. If a farm is not accredited, the pearls they produce are called Cook Islands pearls.”

Related: Seed capital: Paspaley pearls

The most beautiful pearl the 33-year-old grader has ever held, she says, was the very first one she held.

“Our Japanese seeding technician said it was tradition for the women of the family to have first pick from the harvest. It was a dark green A-grade round; I was eight and knew nothing about pearls then.  I chose it only because I thought it was pretty, and had it set in as a beautiful white gold pendant. I think that’s where my passion for pearls began.”

One Foot Island Aitutaki Cook Islands

Cook Islands castaway: One Foot Island is an islet in the turquoise lagoon Aitutaki Island is famous for.

 Freedom in the simple life

Her love for both pearls and Manihiki has never dimmed. “There is freedom in a simple life,” says Vaetoru. “Each day I ride my motorbike to work with the sea on one side and lush green mountains on the other. It’s a small island and we all know each other and take care of one another.

“There is a strong sense of community and you feel like you’re a part of it in almost everything you do. It is remote, but you don’t feel disconnected from the rest of the world as we have daily flights, and many interesting people come to visit.

“It’s exciting to visit a metropolis but a relief to come home where the pace of my life is decided by me.”

Avaiki Perfection Cook Islands pearl Manihiki Lagoon

On the Cook Island A-List: the round Avaiki pearl.

All photos courtesy Cook Islands Pearl Authority


Your turn: The piece of jewellery you’d most hate to lose?


Editor. Writer. Traveller. Keeping tabs on all things fab. susan@excessallareas.com.au

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Copyright © Susan Skelly 2020.