A Conversation with Claude Prevost, Owner and Founder at Civa Fiji Pearl Farm
In the pristine waters off the Fiji Islands, the pearl-producing Pinctada Margaritifera mollusk flourishes. Just like its cousin, the “black-lipped” Tahitian oyster, the Fiji oyster has been successfully cultivated at pearl farms in Fiji, especially over the past two decades. The Fiji cultured pearls are one of the rarest pearls produced through pearl cultivation, because as the name suggests, the oyster is native to the waters around Fiji and thrives only in those waters. These pearls are also adored and coveted for their absolutely unrivalled beauty and range of colours. From warm green, gold and bronze hues to the cooler shades of blue, silver and aubergine, Fiji pearls are renowned for their vibrant colours. Like precious sea gems, Fiji pearls are extraordinary, quite like the picturesque landscape where they are grown.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Claude Michel Prevost at Civa Fiji Pearls a pearl farm based in Taveuni, the third largest island in Fiji. Civa (Fijian for Pinctada Margaritifera oyster), a very apt name, is a working pearl farm which also conducts seasonal farm tours. Claude and his partner Danielle, two Canadian expats from Quebec, are joint owners/founders of the farm and are totally devoted to the cultivation of this exquisite organic gem. A little more than a decade ago, they left their busy lives in Montreal to follow their true passion, pearl cultivation. The result of their hard work and dedication can be seen in the colourful, lustrous and almost scrumptious pearls that they harvest every year at their farm.
In my interview, I asked Claude about what pearl farming entails, why Fiji pearls are valued so highly by pearl lovers and the environmental sustainability initiatives taken by their farm in recent years.
From Canada to Fiji, please tell us a little about your journey to pearl farming and what made you choose Fiji to set up your farm?
My partner Danielle and I left Canada aboard our sailing yacht in 2004 and sailed for almost 4 years. During our journey, we sailed through French Polynesia and this is where we had our first contact with pearl farming. I guess the seed was planted then as we were searching for a new beginning in our lives and the Canadian snow had no more appeal to us. We then continued our trip and stumbled on Fiji and learned that there was some pearl farming on a very small scale done here. We did fall in love with the country and as a bonus, the pearls produced in Fiji where very special… very big and very colorful. We then decided on our new path in life and it would be made of pearls in the South Pacific. We sold our boat and started the farm in 2008.
What is pearl farming? What are the different steps involved in successful pearl farming?
I think pearl farming differs a lot from country to country and every farm has its own challenges. There are different types of oysters that produce different types of pearls. In Fiji, both existing farms (Yes, there are only 2 farms in Fiji) work with one of the variety of black-lip oyster. There is 6 known variety of that species spread out through the Indo-Pacific basin. It is also farmed in Tahiti, Cook Islands and Australia. Fiji offers peculiar challenges to pearl farming. There are no real atolls per se so it is hard to find good farming spots. The big islands of Fiji are quite high and have few sheltered bays with deep water. Also, there is a lot of rain in Fiji reducing the salinity in those bays and that is a serious issue. These are few of the challenges that we face here in Fiji to farm and this is why you do not find many farms but… Big Pearls… Colorful Pearls.
We use spat collectors as means of recruiting juvenile oysters that we seed at the age of 24-30 months. The oysters soak for another 15-18 months to mature the pearls and we reseed the same oysters to make a bigger pearl afterwards. During the whole process, the oysters are cleaned and brushed regularly. They are also constantly monitored for disease, weakness or change in attitude.
What, in your opinion, makes Fiji Pearls one of the most sought after cultured pearls in the world?
Big, Rare and Very colorful. From silky white to cranberry, from blue to purple, green to gold, there is a color for everyone.
How many different colours and shapes have you been able to get in the pearls harvested at your pearl farm? Do the colours and shapes change from year to year?
We get all the traditional shapes of pearls from rosebud baroques to round. We produce keshi pearls, but we do not produce Mabé pearls as yet. As for the colours, it changes constantly. We are helped by being very peculiar and pedantic on oyster selection during the seeding process but clearly, environment plays a bigger role than what we thought at the beginning. We see strong variations between the technicians we use. We see strong variations depending on the depth where we park the oysters and we also see strong variations on luster depending on where we farm in the bay. Clearly, it is all in the details. It is not one thing, it’s a combination of a lot of things.
But over the years we have established one rule that gives us a great head start and it is to rear and condition the oyster pre-seeding by growing them to at least 16cm. And that is a minimum. If we do not follow that rule, we have all sorts of problems. We could seed them at 10 cm, but we would get small pearls, weak oyster that grows slow and heaps of disease issues. No thank you. Been there.
What was the most exceptional pearl you harvested over the past decade?
We had quite a few but we had a perfectly round bright and lustrous cranberry pearl at 16mm without any defects. It was bought by a private individual in Copenhagen in 2015.
If you were given an opportunity to collaborate with a jewellery designer or a jewellery house, to create a collection featuring on Civa Pearls, who would it be and why would you chose them?
We are open to any serious partnership with designers, but it is not a priority in our lives. We pay attention to the farming part of the process. We pay very little attention to the downstream process. It is a big world in itself. I have seen to many farmers worry too much about selling pearls and forget how to make them and lose everything. I raise my hat to the farmers who can actually pull it off like Paspaley and Jewelmer. You need a lot of commitment to the farming process. Selling beautiful quality pearls is very easy. As for poor quality pearls… not so much.
Have you or Danielle ever had interesting encounters with ocean wild life in the waters around the pearl farms. If so, what in your opinion was the most memorable such encounter?
We have seen all sorts of wildlife like hammerhead sharks, mantas or dolphins but for me, I am constantly amazed by the diversity of micro-critters we see on the spat collectors from nudibranchs to micro crabs. Fascinating stuff.
Tell us something about the sustainability driven steps taken by Civa Pearls, including the establishment of the Marine Protected Area on your island?
Pearl farming can be an agent of conservation and marine sustainability if proper farming practices are applied. Pearl farming has come a long way in changing its ways from its more polluting beginnings. At Civa Fiji Pearls we:
- Do our juvenile oyster collecting at least 7 miles up-current from the farm site to curb any genetic in-breeding and pollute the genetic diversity of our stocks.
- Use only 4-stroke marine engines compliant with the latest California Emissions Standard.
- Do all oyster clean-ups on land to avoid any bio fouling in the lagoon. The bio-fouling is then composted and turned into land farm potent organic fertilizer. Bio-fouling dumped in lagoon has caused in the past by other pearl farms serious biological imbalances creating disease outbreaks or oyster parasites outbreaks. Lagoon can take up to 10 years to recover from this disastrous farming technique.
- Have created a marine reserve around the farm in partnership with the Traditional Fishing Rights owners and local communities.
What, if any, environmental challenges are faced by pearl farms in Fiji? How do they affect pearl farming, and have you at Civa Pearls tried to overcome or lessen the impact of these challenges?
There is a long debate on how climate change impacts pearl farming with more storms and water acidification and temperature change. The reality is that there were always storms on record and temperature variation have always been there. Nothing we can do about it, it is something we have to deal with. Our approach is to mitigate by splitting the farm in different zones with different environment so we can diversify our risk. But the thing I am the most afraid of is land runoffs. That really can disturb the farm.
Most of your pearls are exported to Europe and some are sent to Japan and Hong Kong for pearl auctions. How are these two markets different? Do you have any plans to expand your direct exports market to North America as well?
We will not sell pearls through Hong Kong anymore. That market completely collapsed in the last few years. Japan is great for big volume with a strong and reliable and experienced clientele presence at auctions (not now with Covid). That clientele tend to be distributors and wholesalers. As for Europe, these are all direct sales to small volume retailers. They contact us directly. This is our main outlet. I love Europeans because they buy everything from circled pearls to baroques and Keshis which is great for us. Asians only want round pearls and that is hard to fulfill. It is only a small percentage of our production.
North America is a very difficult market, but it looks better as time passes. The USA could be the biggest pearl market in the world, but it is not because of the strong diamond lobby. In the US, it is all about diamonds… diamond engagement rings, wedding rings, diamond earrings, etc… This not the case in Europe where you will see an engagement ring made of sapphire, emeralds or pearls. From the USA, I get orders from private individuals, only once from a retailer. We can feel a slow change, but it will take time. This is a generational thing. But we have few strong pearl sponsors with Kamala Harris, Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, that will help.
Please tell us about the VIP Wholesale section on our website which you have very recently introduced.
This is part of our Covid Response! Traditional pearl auctions have basically disappeared with the pandemic and we were getting more enquiries for pearl lots or pearl parcels for retailers. So we have taken the type of orders we usually get and made a few typical parcels that we sell and displayed them in that section. Retailers can register and buy from that section. We still get most of our enquiries through email, but it is a great display tool for us and cuts a lot on the repetitive work. It also gives a great idea on price range versus shape/quality/size of the pearls.
If pearl lovers want to buy Fiji pearl jewellery from Civa Pearls, what is the best way to purchase it?
Also, can buyers approach you with specific requests, such as a certain shape, colour or size of pearl for a custom jewellery piece? Visit our website (www.civafijipearls.com) or email us direct at firstname.lastname@example.org and yes buyers can approach us with specific requests!
So, what do you think of Fiji’s gorgeous pearls? Do share in the comments below 🙂
Thank you so much Claude for taking time out from your busy schedule to answer my questions. All the best to you and Danielle in your future endeavours at Civa Fiji Pearls.
All images and videos used in this post are the property of Civa Fiji Pearls. Any person or organization not affiliated with Civa Fiji Pearls may not use, copy, alter or modify any of the images used in this post, without the advance written permission of Civa Fiji Pearls.