New Zealand Pearls

Pearls History

Rare and mysterious, the very first discovery and appreciation of pearls is so ancient that it is lost in time. This lustrous jewel was treasured for its beauty, and because it could not be mined like other gemstones. The pearls came from a living organism, an unpredictable gift from the sea.

Archaeologists tell us that pearls were gifted to Chinese royalty and Persian princesses before history was recorded, and pearls were valued by the Romans. It became a symbol of purity and devotion in religious images in mediaeval times, and knights wore pearls for protection in battle.  Thomas Edison marvelled at the pearl, saying that neither pearls nor diamonds could be recreated in his science laboratory.

Steeped in myth and romantic stories, the actual science behind the origin of pearls was first investigated in the 18th Century in Sweden. It wasn’t until 1893 that Mikimoto introduced an irritant into an oyster shell and produced a pearl. In 1913 a German scientist worked out exactly how pearls are formed, and farming pearl oysters began.  The rapid development of cultured pearls first focused on the perfect round white pearl. Beautiful jewels of various colours and shapes are mainly cultured from the bi-valve mollusc, the oyster.  The most rare and beautiful treasure of them all is the blue pearl, cultured from the single-shelled abalone. The intricate, sustainable culture process, using all the delicacy and skill one can imagine, produces the unequalled beauty you see when holding this unique gem in your hand.

Mt Hikurangi East Cape by Matt Crawford for Arapawa Blue Pearls on Arapawa Island, Marlborough Sounds NZ
Mt Hikurangi East Cape by Matt Crawford for Arapawa Blue Pearls on Arapawa Island, Marlborough Sounds NZ

Photo credit Tourism New Zealand

Paua and Māori Tradition

Forever entwined with ancestral knowledge and Māori legend, the story of the beautiful New Zealand paua is one of mystery, beauty and strength. The paua has long been recognised as a gift from Tangaroa, the god of the sea. Legends tell how the paua was given the colours that make it so special, and unique to the New Zealand abalone.

The oral histories not only explain how things came to be, but are imbued with traditions which care for both land and sea, and the creatures living there. These 'whakatauki', poetic proverbs containing pearls of wisdom, explain the relationship between the indigenous people and the natural world. 

A precious 'taonga' (treasure), the paua takes the colours of nature, its blues and greens, pinks, purples, and a subtle yellow gold, and covers them with a shimmer of mother-of-pearl. It builds up layer upon layer of nacre in unique patterns to be discovered at the end of its natural life. Once the protective, camouflaging outer shell is removed, the beauty within the rock-like exterior is revealed. The paua relies on its dull, hard cover for survival in the rocks where it clings, because it has many predators seeking nourishment from the nutritious and very vulnerable flesh holding tightly to the rocks with its single "foot".

The shells of deeper blues and greens from the colder waters surrounding the South Island of New Zealand have slower-growing times and make these shells the rare treasures they are. The Greek name "Haliotis iris" means "sea ear", and, more than just listening, the shell also reflects the colours and harmonies of life and reminds us of earth's beauty.

Traditionally used to highlight the eyes in carved figures, the paua shell is prominent in Māori warrior images, reflecting light and drawing us nearer to study the figure. In some tribes, the most determined warriors were compared to paua, clinging steadfastly to the rocks with their single strong foot, never letting go no matter how strong their opponents were. In the carved images, these glowing, luminescent paua shell eyes are associated with the stars, the eyes of the ancestors who gaze down from the sky.

The paua itself gives so much more. When worn close to the heart, the shell is said to protect and strengthen the heart. It brings sensitivity, harmony, and strength to relationships too. The gift of a polished paua shell is given as a token of peace and love.  

When in 1769 explorer Captain Cook first collected Māori artefacts, the paua shell inserted into carvings was introduced to Europe. Later paua shells were used to make buttons, but it was not until tourists began to take souvenir trinkets home that the unique Haliotis-iris shell became better known outside New Zealand. Paua is legally protected, and highly valued as the wonderful resource that it is.

The paua is also valued as 'kaimoana', food from the sea. Its rich bounty not only gives strength to all who partake of it, but was a food offered to high-ranking guests. Before fishing or diving for paua, Māori gave gifts and offered prayer to Tangaroa. Traditional Māori farmers of both land and sea always maintain sustainable balance, and 'tikanga Māori' teaches us that the right thing to do is to give back to Tangaroa, when we take his treasure from the sea.

Marlborough Sounds image for Arapawa Blue Pearls on Arapawa Island, Marlborough Sounds NZ
Sarah from Arapawa Blue Pearls on Arapawa Island, Marlborough Sounds NZ
Mike and Antonia from Arapawa Blue Pearls on Arapawa Island, Marlborough Sounds NZ

Farming Abalone-Paua in New Zealand

Farming treasured abalone-paua blue pearls on a remote New Zealand island with your perfect partner is much more than romance and an idyllic lifestyle. Discovering a deep connection with a place, taking your desire for adventure to the next level, and embracing the challenges of a new life also come to mind. Arapawa Island, and custodianship of the unique paua, are parts of a story that unfolds to reveal so much more.

For the Radon family, working with nature for almost three decades has meant developing resilience, trusting intuition, and creating flexible and innovative plans supported by proven science and trial and error. What a privilege it is that the Radon family members not only open their hearts and their home to visitors, but also share the secrets of producing the cultured pearls they are passionate about. This is a rare opportunity to learn from world experts in this field.

Abalone aquaculture is a demanding activity due to the delicate constitution of this mollusc. Paua is a marine snail that grows exclusively in New Zealand waters. The fertilisation of their eggs released into the water is so random that any given paua may successfully breed in the wild only once every six or seven years. The survival rate of paua is low because many juveniles do not find a suitable habitat to grow, and are subject to predation.

It is no secret that happy paua produce the best pearls. The trained team at Arapawa Blue Pearls uses a comprehensive grading system to help clients appreciate what makes their pearls unique. When looking for the perfect pearl, the Radon family and their team have developed the eyes of an artist, understanding the attributes of colour, hue, tone and chroma (saturation). Colours have a specific temperature too, and their distinctive greens, blues, pinks, and purples are all from the cooler side of the colour wheel. The colour of each pearl is influenced by many factors, from the original colour palette of the shells to how the paua has been fed, and even the precise spots where inserts are carefully placed in the shells. And timing is everything. You must allow the paua time to work its magic. The perfect moment for harvest is when the mollusc has completed the number of layers of nacre needed to create the pearl. 

Arapawa Blue Pearls grow their farmed paua for about three and a half years before they harvest the happy, healthy abalone that have created the beautiful and durable blister pearls. After the harvest, the quality of the pearl nacre is assessed, and only the best pearls are selected for sale. The pearls are not treated, nor are they over-polished, and clients who love the natural, earthy look will also find gems to suit them. 

This story is no fairy tale, but it is what dreams are made of. Blue, the most expensive and precious colour in art and fashion history, is the stunning colour of the most beautiful and rare cultured pearl. This luxurious gift from the rocky seashores of Arapawa Island is truly a wonder of nature, and a gift from the sea. 

Paua shell with pearl for Arapawa Blue Pearls on Arapawa Island, Marlborough Sounds NZ
Paua blue pearl grading for Arapawa Blue Pearls on Arapawa Island, Marlborough Sounds NZ
Grading blue pearls for Arapawa Blue Pearls on Arapawa Island, Marlborough Sounds NZ

Grading Arapawa Blue Pearls

Arapawa Blue Pearls grading system helps us communicate our pearls' characteristics and the reasons for their value. We are proud to offer Certified New Zealand-origin Abalone-Paua Pearls that are untreated and unsurpassed in colour and lustre; the rarest blue pearls on earth come directly to you from our farm.

We are passionate about sharing everything we have learned about the Abalone-Paua mabe pearls, so let’s talk about one of the most complex and fascinating topics: grading our pearls. We will introduce you in this chapter to the fundamental elements of classifying and valuing our rare pearls. And remember, if you would like a deeper appreciation of this topic, you can book a visit to our farm, and we will offer a memorable Arapawa Blue Pearls Tour.

We have developed a grading system to communicate accurately to our clients the individual characteristics of the Paua pearls and the reasons for their value. To get there, we have completed a global benchmarking, considering other pearl growers' practices, experiences, and the best gemmological and jewellery sources of knowledge. During this process, we have received the support and guidance of Gina Barreto, a gemmologist, and a diamond technologist from the Gemmological Association of Australia, based in New Zealand.

Offering a product that is so unique within the pearls industry, like our Paua or Abalone pearls, is exciting but also brings some interesting challenges.

The Haliotis iris or rainbow-coloured abalone is a mollusc only found in New Zealand. So, a logical starting point was to study the local grading systems already implemented in the past by other New Zealand companies. In addition to that, we also found some interesting references from the Tahitian and Australian South Sea Pearls pearl farmers. During our investigation, we acknowledged critical sources of knowledge like the Cultured Pearl Association of America, CIBJO and GIA.

After processing all the information available, our first conclusion was that there is no unified or universal pearl grading system we could use as a direct model. As our blister pearls from the Haliotis iris have specific characteristics, and it would be an impossible mission (and a very unfair one) trying to copy the same criteria used for grading and pricing other well-known commercial pearls in the market.

Secondly, we decided that adopting information, terminology, and guidance from well-respected sources like CIBJO and GIA was the best way to support the creation of our own grading methodology. We have established a grading system for our Arapawa Blue Pearls that follows the Gemmological Institute of America's standards and terminology.

Consequently, the unique Arapawa Blue Pearls grading system is based on seven grades from Gem, A, B1, B2, C1, C2 to C3. Each pearl we offer to the market has been assessed using all the GIA seven pearl attributes: size, shape, colour, lustre, surface quality, nacre quality, and matching when this last attribute is relevant.

The following chart summarizes the characteristics of all seven grades regarding their quality and price levels.

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Arapawa Blue Pearls grading and pricing system - overview

Grade Price Quality
Gem Family private collection, not for sale Premium. Extra fine
A $$$$$$ Excellent. Fine
B1 $$$$$ Good
B2 (here includes pearls with aesthetic conchiolin marks) $$$$ Good
C1 $$$ Good commercial
C2 $$ Fair commercial
C3 $ Low commercial






C3 Grade

Our quality control path
We have established several phases of quality control across the production process. Once we collect all the pearls coming from the harvest, the first step is to discard all the blisters and mabe pearls that do not satisfy the minimum requirements for beauty, surface, and nacre quality in preparing the official grading process.

It takes around 3.5 years to grow our blister pearls, and during that time, we provide the best resources and care to the selected molluscs we are farming. Growing happy and healthy Abalones will help our goal of creating beautiful and durable pearls. Regarding nacre thickness, experts have said it is impossible to determine an ideal measurement for all types of pearls. We have defined a minimum nacre thickness that all our pearls need to achieve, otherwise, they won’t be part of the grading process. 

Any faulty pearl showing below our minimum thickness measurement, undesirable missing nacre spots, or cracks are discarded for nacre quality control. Notice we embrace the conchiolin or organic brown deposits in some of our pearl’s grades. As we do not over-polish or perform any pearl treatments, some clients prefer that type of “earthy” look, and grade B2 has a special place for them.

Ultimately, every pearl should be classified in one of the seven grades and must comply with the requirements of each level in terms of colour, lustre, nacre, and surface qualities. We labelled this first group as our “conventional pearls” at that stage.

Best of the best
There is an additional and final part of the process, where we perform a second classification of our pearls. The idea here is to recognize the value of the pearls that stand up from the “conventional label” in each grade. We make notes of any pearl showing off extra thickness (nacre), noticeable orient, or blue colour; those pearls will command higher prices.

Grading the rare blue colour in pearls
Colour analysis for any gemstone is an extraordinarily complex topic; for us, it is the most crucial attribute of this Paua pearls grading system. Of all the seven pearl attributes, colour is the one that makes our Abalone-paua pearls so unique. GIA experts have determined that blue is the rarest colour in the pearl industry. In our pricing system, the presence of blue colour increases the value of the pearl.  
The classification we use to describe the colours of our pearls follows the GIA guidelines for pearl grading. Also, we have learned that colour perception is deeply connected with the perception of other pearl attributes.
Although our company name is Arapawa Blue Pearls, we also produce other colours different from legendary blue. Indeed, Mother Nature can surprise us with any colour variation; however, we have consolidated here the full range of our pearl hues:

yellowish green green bluish green blue green green blue
greenish blue blue violet purple pinkish purple

According to colour theory, hues can be warm or cool. For instance, notice that most of the colours in our Paua pearls come from the "cool" section of the hue circle, matching the unique palette from the Haliotis iris's mother of pearl.

The classification used to describe the colours of our pearls follows the international GIA guidelines for pearl grading

Paua pearl colour chart for Arapawa Blue Pearls on Arapawa Island, Marlborough Sounds NZ

To correctly grade the colour of our pearls, we have taken into consideration the following steps:
-Regarding the tools used, we have built our own "evaluation room" following the GIA ideal conditions for pearls grading, especially their colour.

-We have created our master sets for grading the pearl attributes, including colour and overtones.

-Our team have been trained in the use of the grading system. Colour assessment can be subjective; we request two people to be involved in this part of the process.

-Also, we have tested our team's eyes performance, so we can be confident everyone is on the same page when talking about colour and we do not have colour perception problems.

In brief, when describing colour to our clients, we examine two aspects of the pearl: the primary body colour and the overtones or orient, if this applies to the item.

Other elements from the colour theory, like hue, tone, and saturation, have also been evaluated for a holistic colour approach. Still, as we want to simplify this process for our client, we have decided to summarize this topic as body colour + overtone/orient.

Overtone is the overlying translucent colour or colours in a pearl. Some prevalent overtones for our mabe Abalone pearls are pink, green, blue, violet, and yellow.

Orient is any combination of multiple overtone colours (two or more) overlying a pearl's body colour. Iridescence is also considered a synonym ​for orient, but it is more associated with describing white ​pearls' multiple overtones. In both cases, it should be easy to notice flashes of rainbow colours. Particularly, GIA Labs uses the word orient and not iridescence in their reports, therefore, we prefer to use the concept of orient. In our pricing system, the presence of noticeable​ orient increases the value of the pearl. Other experts use the term orient to describe a fine pearl's transparency, brightness, and beauty. We respect that perspective, but we do not use the word "orient" with that meaning in our grading system.

Proudly, we offer certified New Zealand origin Abalone-Paua Pearls from Arapawa Blue Pearls. Untreated and unsurpassed in colour and lustre, the rarest blue pearls on earth come directly to you from our farm.

Take our exclusive Pearl Tour and let us unveil one of the best-kept secrets in the jewellery industry. Arapawa Blue Pearls farms in New Zealand Abalone-Paua pearls, some of the world's finest, rarest, and most beautiful pearls.

Polished Paua shell for Arapawa Blue Pearls on Arapawa Island, Marlborough Sounds NZ

Arapawa Blue Pearls produces around ten different types of pearl colours, including rare blue.
All the classified hues match the unique palette from the Haliotis iris's mother of pearl.

Certificate of Authenticity for Arapawa Blue Pearls on Arapawa Island, Marlborough Sounds NZ

Cover of the Pearl Certification of Authenticity:
unique and sustainable farmed New Zealand origin Abalone-Paua Pearls from Arapawa Blue Pearls.

A special thankyou

To Gina Barreto for all the tremendous hard work she has put into our website content.
Gina always gave it 110% and never gave up. We will always be forever grateful.