Think you know a thing or two about pearls? Think again.
Oakura jeweller Rob Wright has been creating pearl masterpieces for decades and knows far more than most about the organic gems.
"There's that idea that they form from a grain of sand trapped in the shell but natural pearls are actually caused by a parasite," Wright explains, dashing those romantic notions.
Often it's a worm that wriggles in between the shell and the flesh of a mollusc. The irritation causes the shellfish to secrete nacre - the iridescent lining on the inside of the shell - which is made up of a calcium carbonate called aragonite and conchiolin.
The nacre collects around the irritant and from there the pearl is formed.
It's a not-so-pretty means to a beautiful end and walking around the Surrey Hill Rd premises of Ringcraft Moana, it's easy to see why pearls have such an appeal for Wright.
Although he has a particular passion for the pearls produced by Haliotis Iris - New Zealand's very own blackfoot paua - Wright also works with freshwater and South Seas varieties, incorporating them in earrings, bracelets, necklaces and rings.
From the perfectly round and white version to the deep, swirling greens and blues of a large conical paua pearl, his work features pearls of all shapes, colours and sizes.
Continuing the on-the-spot education, Wright says the classic round shape is by far the least common natural pearl.
"Because they don't usually form around a uniform shape, most natural pearls aren't uniform, either," he says.
It's information that comes as a surprise to many people on the site tours run by Wright and his marketing manager Belinda Lubkoll,
"You can see people's minds working while we're explaining the process of pearl formation," Lubkoll says. "We've had people come back with paua they've found up the coast and they have pearls. They're expecting that perfectly round, white pearl so they often don't realise what they have."
The unique shapes lend themselves nicely to Wright's equally-unique designs, many of which are inspired by his love of the sea.
Born in Taranaki, Wright has been a surfer for most of his life, a passion reflected in the twisting, turning, fluid lines of his creations.
"I wouldn't call myself a mainstream jeweller," he says.
"The things I make are a bit more artistic."
Like many artistic types, Wright works in a state of organised chaos - with a little more emphasis on the chaos than the organisation.
His workbench holds all manner of tools, scraps of precious metals and other valuable leftovers from his work. It's an environment Lubkoll, who is becoming something of a craftswoman herself since starting with Wright, can't imagine working in, "but it obviously works for him".
His artistic bent and the fact Wright holds the only contract to purchase natural paua pearls from the Chatham Islands make his pieces even more unique and his collection one of international significance.
In 2010, a pearl from Wright's Chatham Island stocks was included in the cover art for Pearls, a book written on behalf of the Qatar Museum Authority.
More of Wright's work was included in the fifth edition of the Pearl Buying Guide the same year. The international exposure sparked a flurry of overseas interest in the business and orders from the UK, Europe and Australia increased.
"A lot of people check things out online first and then order from overseas so the internet works well for us," Wright says.
There are plans for further expansion of the business and Wright has the Australian market in his sights this year.
"We're looking at a couple of places over there where we think we could do well," he says.
"We're also in the process of organising a jewellery valuation service and have someone training as a gemologist to do that."
Wright and Lubkoll also run jewellery classes for those wanting a hands-on experience.
The 90-minute classes cost $80 per person, including all the materials for a freshwater pearl and bead bracelet participants make and take home.
Suitable for almost all ages, Ringcraft Moana has played host to a nine-year-old girl's birthday party and a group of budding jewellers in their fifties.
"They were two very different classes in terms of atmosphere," Lubkoll laughs, "but the classes seem to work for everyone."
With so much to learn from such willing teachers, it's no surprise everyone leaves Ringcraft Moana knowing a thing or two about pearls.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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