Tokerau Jim’s big, tattooed arms look like they should belong to a gang member or professional rugby player. But as he picks up a black pearl and begins to carve a tiny, delicate design on its slippery surface without using a vice of any sort, it becomes clear these are the hands of a skilled artist.
The now 45-year-old Cook Islander is one of only a few pearl-carvers in the world, but his pieces are a cut above the rest: smaller, more intricate, and increasingly sought-after.
“People are now arriving on the island having already seen our work on the website. They know what they want, and they’ll be knocking on the doors even when we’re closed,” laughs Tokerau, who lives with his wife Nicky and their three children on the island of Rarotonga.
Although known as black pearls, the pearls of the black-lipped oyster actually come in a wide range of hues, including pink, green, silver and cream. Initially, Tokerau used low-grade pearls - grade C or D - for his carvings, seeing as any imperfections could be covered by the designs. But it soon became apparent that the better the quality of the original pearl, the more quickly it would sell.
“A low-grade pearl is dull-looking, it looks dead. Starting with a more beautiful pearl means a more beautiful finished product.”
It’s been a long journey for Tokerau and Nicky, who can recall the days when money was so short they used to try to catch some of the island’s wild chickens to eat.
Tokerau began carving as a hobby, as is often the way, making gifts for friends out of pearl shells in 1993. He started supplying Beachcomber a jewellery and art gallery in Avarua, the main town on Rarotonga with his beautiful carvings for only a few months before dreams of another kind led to four years in India, working with Youth With A Mission, a global missionary-training organisation. This cemented Tokerau’s faith in God - a faith which he says is behind everything he does in both art and life.
Arriving back in the Cook Islands in 1997 - with wife Nicky, who comes from India - he returned and was invited to be artist-in-residence at the Beachcomber. He soon realised not much had changed in the world of shell-carving during the years he had been away.
“ I was excited about that, because it meant there was an opening for something fresh and new.”
He says he owes much to former Beachcomber owner and artist Joan Rolls, now retired, who gave him the backing and the freedom to develop his art.
“Joan encouraged me so much and gave me a wide reign. Sometimes I would sit for days on end, thinking about what to carve on a particular shell. Basically, she paid me to explore possibilities, to think and to dream.”
It was Joan Rolls who supported Tokerau during the build-up to his first exhibition, where he displayed numerous mother-of-pearl shell carvings. He spent the next eight months trying to find the right equipment in order to do so.
“I had no idea what drills to use, or how it could be done. So it was a pretty hard time, with a lot of trial and error and lots of frustration.”
The actual how-to of pearl carving, and the exact equipment used is a closely- guarded secret, but the main keys are steady hands and sharp eyes for detail.
With no formal training in either art or business, Tokerau and Nicky went out on their own in December 1998; and today the Tokerau Jim showrooms are a popular stop for tourists and locals alike on the Matavera beachfront, looking out over the reef to the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean. During whale season, from July to October every year, the great creatures can be seen only 100 metres or so from where Tokerau sits to carve.
“It’s pretty hard not to be inspired in a place like this.”
Inspiration comes also from a life lived on some of the most beautiful islands in the world, including one and a half years on the remote Suwarrow as a teenager, when his father was the island’s caretaker and the Jim family its only residents. Life was about survival - they once went four months without supplies, living on only coconuts and fish. It was also a life surrounded by incredible beauty.
“My time on Suwarrow had a big influence on me,” he says, his face lighting up at the memory. “There were the most incredible sunsets I have ever seen, and I remember thinking ‘this is what the first day after creation must have been like.’”
These days he works with both mother-of-pearl and the pearls themselves. There are several carvers on the island producing shell pendants, but a Tokerau Jim piece is distinctive in that he uses a lot more ‘layering,’ a technique which gives the design a distinctive depth. He still spends time studying each piece of shell before starting to work on it, determining how best to develop its grain and colour, before the intensive sanding and carving and polishing begins. It is the original shell or pearl which dictates whether the resulting design will be a flower or a whale, for example, or a traditional Pasifika motif.
Nicky grades the pearls, which come from the outer islands of Manihiki looking at a pearl’s lustre, shape, size, colour and markings. Tokerau uses B-grade pearls for carving, with each carved piece selling for between $200 to $900.
The couple are passionate about business, about God and about excellence in everything they do - a formula which seems to be working. They say it is ‘almost unbelievable’ how the business has gone from strength to strength, even through economic times when other businesses on the island have struggled.
“In the beginning it was about paying the bills and putting food on the table,” says Tokerau, picking up a piece of shell and running his fingers over it. “But now it’s about developing what God has given me so that we can reach out to others. We don’t want to create a nice little life just for ourselves. We want to be in a position to significantly help other people financially and practically and to encourage them also to pursue their own God given dreams".