Jewellery designer Debra Allan’s Tofe Ófa Atu range of Mabe pearls

Jewellery designer Debra Allan is on a mission to tell the world about Tonga’s Mabé pearls.  Ms Allan was the winner of the Beginner Artisan Award in last year’s inaugural Tonga Made Pearl competition.  Her winning piece, called “Tofe ‘Ofa Atu” is a necklace with a large Mabé pearl was modelled and then gifted to the Tongan flag bearer, Rio Olympian Pita Taufatofua.  Mr Taufatofua became famous in 2016 when images of him carrying the flag went viral online after the Olympic opening ceremony.

Ms Allan is an Australian by birth but Tongan at heart. She has lived in Tonga for several years after an initial visit as an independent volunteer. She loved the country so much she stayed and now she works at the Australian High Commission managing AusAid programmes.

But her passion lies in making Mabé pearl jewellery for her small business Tofe ‘Ofa Atu named after her winning jewellery piece.

Pacific Periscope interviewed Ms Allan in Auckland recently as part of the Tongan Export Week run concurrently with Tongan Language Week and Fun & Fresh Mai e Nima or Give Me 5 programme. Mai E Nima aims to encourage Tongan children toward healthy foods by eating five or more pieces of fruit or vegetables daily.

The Tongan Export Week and Mai E Nima campaign was headed by Nishi Trading company owner Minoru and Jenny Nishi of Nishi Foods (Tonga) and associated sponsors, T&G (Turners & Growers), Pacific Trade Invest (PTI) New Zealand and Tinopai Farms.

The trade events were organised by Joanna Bourke owner of CocoNew – The Agency, in association with PTI Trade Development Manager Joe Fuavao. The product demonstrations included watermelon and coconut drink Otai at New World Victoria Park Supermarket, a delicious morning breakfast at T&G and watermelon, squash and butternut at La Cigale French Markets at Britomart and Parnell. Ms Allan travelled to New Zealand to be part of export week and promote her jewellery.

Ms Allan works in her jewellery business part-time.  But “I’d love to be able to do this full-time, I love it so much,” Ms Allan said.

Mabé is the Japanese name of the giant winged pearl oyster, originally used to produce half round pearls. The half pearls or blister pearls are grown against the inside of the pearl shell. The Wild Mabé giant winged pearl oyster was found in Feiafu Bay in Vava’u in Tonga in 1988. The species was not familiar in Tonga until it was introduced in 1975 for pearl farming although a smaller endemic variety of winged pearl was known to the local community.

Rio Olympian Pita Taufatofua with Debra Allan.

Ms Allan designs each unique piece of jewellery in a contemporary style. The Mabé pearl is set on tapa cloth using Tongan patterns and designs. She coats each piece of pearl jewellery with a resin, which can sometimes be a little tricky depending on the weather in Tonga. The jewellery is also specially presented in a small uniquely designed handmade tapa cloth box, decorated with tapa designs.

Winning the Beginners Award in the jewellery competition has lifted her confidence and encouraged her. A local boutique retailer in Nuku’alofa, Le Ata Boutique, is selling Tofe Ofa Atu. Ms Allan prices her pieces in line with the quality of the pearls.

The inaugural pearl design competition organised by the Ministry of Fisheries in conjunction with the Royal Agricultural Fisheries and the transfer and appointment of key staff in Pearl Farming production indicates a stronger government commitment to growing Tonga’s fledgling Mabé pearl industry.

In 2016, Tonga’s Ministry of Fisheries website noted strong progress for the Mabé Pearl Industry. Their statistics showed a 50 per cent increase in the number of active pearl farms with a total of 15 Mabé pearl farms across Vava’u, Tongatapu and Ha’apai.

Several initiatives started in Vava’u and Ha’apai include the first Mabé pearl artisanal training workshop, pearl advertising billboards and planning for a Pearl Farming Information centre. Ha’apai has also established its very first pearl farm on the island of Uiha along with holding the first pearl farming information and training workshops.

The positive response to Tonga Export Week during Tongan Language Week could mean further future opportunities for small businesses such as Tofe ‘Ofa Atu to promote their businesses internationally in New Zealand.

For more information please contact: Joe Fuavao, PTI Trade Development Manager on joe.f@pacifictradeinvest.co.nz 

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