Although Fijian pearls are considered newcomers to the world of cultured pearls, their roots trace back to the early 1950s, when Japanese pearl entrepreneurs attempted several farming operations under the auspices of the Japanese diamond policy. The operations were quite small and none succeeded. A decade later two Japanese pearl technicians, Yasuharo Tokito and Dr. Koji Wada, achieved marginal success.
The duo began their Pacific journey in 1960, setting up a small farm in Namarai Bay on the large Island of Viti Levu. Shortly thereafter, they were approached by two Frenchmen, Jacques Rosenthal and his brother. The Rosenthals had traveled to the South Pacific on government orders to establish French Polynesia’s first private pearl farm. They had recently launched an operation on Manihi atoll and invited both Tokito and Wada to join them. Wada agreed, believing opportunities in French Polynesia to be much greater. Tokito on the other hand believed in Fiji's potential and remained. It can be said that Mr. Tokito is the father of the Fijian pearl industry.
Tokito’s influence on Pearl farming in Fiji was not confined to his own farm. He also shared his knowledge and experience with other pearl farmers. This included Justin Hunter, who founded Fiji's current largest farm, J. Hunter Pearls Fiji.
The J. Hunter Pearls Fiji farm began in 1999, and harvested its first crop of cultured pearls in 2003. Mr. Hunter had previous experience in aquaculture and hatcheries, setting up hatcheries and nurseries for Taylor Shellfish Farms in Washington State and Hawaii. He accomplished something that has eluded Tahitian pearl farmers to this day—breeding black-lipped pearl mollusks (Pinctada margaritifera).
Seven varieties of black lips are native to different parts of the world. French Polynesia hosts the most common variety, Pinctada margaritifera cumingii, which is used almost exclusively in the production of Tahitian pearls. Fiji is primarily populated with the Pinctada margaritifera typica variety. The typica is a smaller pearl mollusk with distinctly different coloration around the lip of its shell, often a striking orange rather than the dark colors of the cumingii. By selectively breeding the native typica black lip, Mr. Hunter succeeded in producing a new type of black pearl.
Production in Fiji is very limited. J. Hunter Fiji estimates a crop of only 30,000 pearls for 2017. For the past decade, nearly all Fijian pearls have been sold in Europe where they attract premium prices. In 2018, the US pearl company Assael began importing and selling Fijian pearls from Justin Hunter's farm and secured rights to market them in the United States.