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By Vasemaca Tuisawau

SUVA, Fiji Islands (May 2, 2000 - Islands Business/PINA Nius Online)---More than a year after French Polynesia banned the export of "reject" pearls, the country's cultured pearl industry is setting record highs.

"It was a year full of records: record volume, record revenue for exported Tahitian pearl products, and record sales at international auctions," said Pierre Lehartel, chairman of the GIE (Groupement d'Interet Economique) Perles de Tahiti board.

During the first quarter of 1999, French Polynesia exported more than 9,000 pounds of pearls, a 14 percent increase from the same period in 1998. This figure comes from a new system of statistics furnished by the French Polynesian government's customs department and is based on the new export classification regulations in operation since January 1999.

The new regulation places stringent rules on overseas buyers – preventing them from exporting their purchases without using a certified local middleman or producer, or without setting up their own certified local business.

It also includes a ban on the exportation of pearls coming under the "reject" or below standard classification. (This does not apply to finished pearl jewelry such as rings, earrings, pendants and necklaces.)

GIE Perles de Tahiti General Manager Martin Coeroli said he hopes the limitation placed on the export of pearls will increase not just their exclusivity, but also the quality of the exports.

GIE Perles de Tahiti has put a lot of effort into developing existing markets, seeking out new ones, and adapting to changes in buying habits. It is also carrying out the necessary changes for promotional and marketing strategies in order to ensure the commercial success of the gem.

Black pearl producers also realize the need to improve the quality of their product.

The 22nd International Poe Rava Nui Tahitian Pearl Auction experienced record sales totaling $US 9 million.

An auction in February with 50 of the world's top international marketing companies netted more than $US 10 million.

Tahiti Pearl Producers Association President Francky Tehaamatai attributes the record sales to new government regulations.

"I think the regulations put in place by the government to impose stricter controls on production, helped better organize local production and create that atmosphere of confidence among the buyers," Tehaamatai said.

Pearl producers are optimistic of the industry’s future.

Pierre Lehartel, former board chairman of GIE Perles de Tahiti, said it is now up to the industry to meet the challenge and maintain the lead the country has had since 1998 in the world's loose cultured pearl market.

Efforts must be made to increase export revenues in order to reach the goal of 300 billion French Pacific francs (some $US 3 billion) by the year 2004.

"It is appropriate that as the 20th Century draws to a close, Tahiti has prepared herself for the 21st century with the most strict controls ever on the exporting of Tahitian cultured pearls," said Robert Wan, a pearl tycoon from French Polynesia. "That way we will continue to offer only the best for the world to admire and hopefully buy."

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