Tokerau Jim is a spiritual and deeply religious Cook Islander whose family comes from the island of Manihiki, the heart of the Cook Islands pearl industry. His tribal tattoos and muscular frame seem incongruous with the delicate work he skillfully creates with pearl shells and pearls.
Now in his forties, Tokerau Jim is an unassuming expert pearl carver and dedicated family man. He is one of only a few pearl carvers in the world.
His state-of-of-the-art retail shop is located at Matavera on the eastern side of Rarotonga, not far from Muri Beach. Air conditioned with attractive display cabinets, the retail shop is the handy work of Tokerau Jim’s stylish wife, Nicky.
They met in India whilst Tokerau Jim was on mission work with ‘Youth with a Mission’ in the late 1990s.
“I grew up in Rarotonga, although I did spend two years in Manihiki when I was 11 and 12. Pearl farming wasn’t really happening then in the 1980s,” said Tokerau Jim.
“After school, I went from job to job, trying different things out. Then I became an Immigration Officer in the Northern Group island of Suwarrow for a year and a half while my father was the island’s caretaker and our family were the only residents.”
“My father is also carver, he has carved a lot of woodwork. He has built boats and houses. My mother is an artist”.
Tokerau Jim started carving as a hobby in the early 1990s, but soon began supplying his carvings to the Beachcomer Gallery in Avarua, the main township of Rarotonga.
But, just as his carving business was building up he chose to spend the next four years in India with ‘Youth with a Mission’, a missionary training organisation.
When he arrived back in Rarotonga in 1997 on his honeymoon, he was invited to become artist-in-residence at the Beachcomber. His vocation as a pearl carver was sealed. He staged his first exhibition with his collection of mother-of-pearl carvings. He then set up his pearl carving business, buying equipment and working full-time carving.
Today, Tokerau Jim carves black pearls and shells into attractive, affordable works of art. His work is distinctive in that he uses a lot of layering, a technique that gives his designs depth.
When considering the future of his business, he said that he would like his children to take over, but he would not force them.
“Our three children are only 15, 10 and 5, so there is time for them to consider.
“One thing I would like to do one day is to set up a Polynesian pearl carving school to ensure the traditional skills are passed down to another generation”.
Tokerau Jim’s working day starts between 4-5 am. The first thing he does is thank his God for giving him the opportunity to do what he does, surrounded by his family
* In addition to the retail outlet in Matavera, Tokerau Jim Designs has a showroom at the Punanga Nui Cultural Market that is open on Saturday mornings from 8am-midday, and where he demonstrates pearl carving on site, and creative pieces are for sale. Tokerau Jim Designs also has an online shop - click here.