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June - Broome Pearls

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Luggers at Streeters Jetty Broome, Click to view a larger image

Western Australia's sixth heritage icon recognises the contribution the pearling industry has made to both the social and economic fabric of our society.

Pearling began in Western Australia in the 1850s at Shark Bay, where natural pearls were found in the Pinctada albina oyster. When the larger Pinctada maxima oyster, which produced superb pearls (called South Sea pearls) and top quality mother of pearl (MOP) shell, was discovered in areas north of Nickol Bay, the industry spread along the north west coast.

The pearling industry began to flourish in the mid-1860's and the remote outpost town of Broome began to grow as its major port and base, attracting a wide range of peoples from many countries and cultures. They came for the adventure, the promise of work and the possibility of making their fortunes. English, Europeans, Japanese, Malays, Koepangers and other Asian cultures were drawn to the lure of the pearling industry in Broome. In the early days of the pearling industry Aborigines were extensively used as skin divers for pearl shell and work aboard the pearl luggers.

The Premier, Dr Geoff Gallop and Carol Martin, member for the Kimberley Region investigate the State's sixth heritage icon, Broome Pearls, Click to view a larger image

By 1910, nearly 400 luggers and more than 3500 people were fishing for shell in waters around Broome, then the biggest pearling centre in the world. The pearling industry in Broome was based primarily on the collection of oysters for their shell value and not for the occasional pearls they would yield.

As the demand for 'Mother of Pearl' shell continued to rise, the tiny town of Broome became known as the 'Pearl Capital of the World' and was one of the most unique and multi-cultural towns in all of Australia. 'Mother of Pearl" shell was used to make buttons, stays, cutlery, art objects, hair combs and jewellery items.

The divers were mostly Japanese from the Taiji province. They wore vulcanised canvas suits and massive bronze helmets, and were lowered over the lugger's side to spend hours underwater. On the bottom they struggled about in lead-weighted boots, often almost horizontal as they peered through inch-thick faceplates into murky waters, frantically scooping oysters into bags because divers were paid by the amount of shell they collected.

The harvesting of the shell was arduous and hazardous work. Pearlers faced the perils of the sea, the unpredictable weather and the devastating cyclones. Pearl divers faced the threat of shark attack or the dreaded crippling effects of the bends with every dive. Between 1908 and 1935 four cyclones hit the pearling fleet at sea and around 100 boats and 300 men perished. The risk was high and many lives were lost but the potential for riches continued to lure adventurers from all over the world.

 
Relaxing in March before the start of the 1973 pearling season, young Japanese divers on lugger moored in Broome, Western Australia, Click to view a larger image

The early luggers were sail-powered and only catered for one diver's apparatus, but by the 1930s, most vessels were motorised and mechanical air pumps allowed two divers per boat.

Over the years, the pearling industry faced many challenges. The price of shell, being linked to global supply and demand, always made the pearling industry and Broome's economy vulnerable to world events. Prior to World War I, the price of shell was at an all time high. With the announcement of the war in 1914, the demand for M.O.P. shell dropped drastically overnight. Most of the industry's labour pool immediately joined the war effort and the industry was left without sufficient labour or resources to maintain its fleets.

The pearling industry limped along until the end of the war and by the 1920's had recovered to the point where the price of shell was higher than ever. Then disaster stuck again with the announcement of the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941. Australia and the United States entered World War II and once again, almost overnight, the pearling industry was out of business. The industry's heavy reliance on its Japanese pearl divers, who were now interred in prisoner of war camps, and the fact that most of the pearling industry's labour pool was now enlisted in the war effort, forced the industry to cease operations.

Most of Broome's residents sought refuge in safer locations further south, fearing a Japanese bombing attack on the town. In fact, the Japanese did bomb Broome one time during the war, on 3 March 1942. This attack ensured that the town's residents did not return until after the war and guaranteed the further deterioration of the town and its pearling fleet. The recovery this time, was a long an arduous task requiring new vision and the willingness to recreate not only the town but also the whole focus of the pearling industry.

New technologies were embraced and the potential for tourism for the region was promoted as the best way to revitalize the town. Broome and the pearling industry, survived the economic devastation's of both world wars and today, is not only still recognized as the Pearl Capital of the World but as a prime tourist destination with a thriving community and flourishing economy.

Natural and Cultured Pearls

A natural pearl is formed when something gets into the oyster and irritates the lining. If the oyster is unable to flush out this irritant it will coat the offending particle in layers of nacre (a form of calcium carbonate) to reduce that irritation. This irritant may be a grain of sand, a piece of shell grit, seaweed or any other particle that gets lodged inside the oyster. Natural pearls formed this way are usually small and irregularly shaped. Large round ones are very, very, rare.

Cultured pearls are made when an artificial nucleus is introduced and the results are cultured round pearls, cultured irregularly shaped pearls (baroque) and half-round pearls (mabe) made by fixing hollow plastic shapes to the oyster's shell wall in its last year of production.

Most of Australia's South Sea pearls come from Broome's P. maxima oysters. These pearls are the largest and finest in the world, with their silvery whiteness or overtones of rose, blue or gold. The best pearls come from contented oysters, and the advent of pearl farms has produced environments that are designed to minimise stress on them.

The farming involves moving them while tides and temperatures are fairly stable, cleaning them of marine parasites, and hanging them from panels in the water column to keep them flushed with nutrients and carry waste away. Tending the oysters is a continuous process aimed at keeping pearls developing smoothly to minimise blemishes caused by stress.

Most of the technicians who seed the oysters are Japanese, but some Australians are in training, and they travel the world working six to eight week stints at each farm.

For further information on pearling and Broome the following websites may be of interest.