Many thousands of years ago, long before written history, human beings probably discovered the first pearl while searching the seashore for food. Throughout history, the pearl, with its warm inner glow and shimmering iridescence, has been one of the most highly prized and sought-after gems. Countless references to the pearl can be found in the religions and mythology of cultures from the earliest times. The ancient Egyptians prized pearls so much they were buried with them. Cleopatra reportedly dissolved a single pearl in a glass of wine and drank it, simply to win a wager with Mark Antony that she could consume the wealth of an entire nation in just one meal.

In ancient Rome, pearls were considered the ultimate symbol of wealth and social standing. The Greeks held the pearl in high esteem for both its unrivaled beauty and its association with love and marriage. During the Dark Ages, while fair maidens of nobility cherished delicate pearl necklaces, gallant knights often wore pearls into battle. They believed the magic of these lustrous gems would protect them from harm. The Renaissance saw the royal courts of Europe awash in pearls. Because pearls were so highly regarded, a number of European countries actually passed laws forbidding anyone but the nobility to wear them.

Australian Pearling

In the 1870s, divers off the coast of Australia discovered something great. It was the Pinctada maxima oyster. The large size of the oysters attracted the attention of local traders. In the beginning, the oysters were pickup up by Aboriginal nacked divers. Most of these divers were women. They had a larger lung capacity then the male divers and could pick up more shells in one dive. Soon after that pearling schooners filled with Sri Lankan divers began to harvest the oysters. Still for its shell rather than for the pearls they contained.

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.

The Pinctada maxima oysters grow in the waters of Australia, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Myanmar (Burma). The saltwater pearls they can contain come in both silver- and gold-lipped form. The colors can range from white to gold. Overtones of the silver-lipped oyster has overtones of silvery white or bluish white. The gold-lipped variety has overtones of gold, cream or silver. The size of South Sea pearls range from 10 to 20 millimeters, but pearls larger than 16 millimeters are rare.

In the beginning, the oysters were so plentiful that at low tide they could be picked from the exposed sand. As the oysters became depleted, more and more sophisticated diving methods had to be used. Before the invention of synthetics like plastic, Mother of Pearl shell was used across the world to make buttons, in jewelery and for decoration. A pearling settlement was founded at Roebourne Bay in 1880. In 1883 it was named Broome, after the then Governor of Western Australia.

By 1901 the pearling trade employed 2000 people from many nations. The majority were Japanese and Malaysian, but Chinese, Filipino, Amborese, Koepanger (Timorese) and Makassan workers, as well as Aboriginal Australians and people from a range of European nations worked in the pearl trade.
As the Australian pearl industry boomed, the small town of Broome became the pearling center. In fact, South Sea pearls were originally called "Broome pearls". Within three years of the original discovery, Australia was supplying 75 percent of the world's supply of mother-of-pearl for making shirt buttons.

In the early years of the twentieth century the pearl shell trade boomed. By 1912 there were more than 400 pearl luggers working from the port of Broome, spending months at sea gathering the precious shell and pearls. It is said that before the First World War Broome was the source of three quarters of the world's pearl shell.

Like many other parts of Australia, Broome was greatly effected by the First World War. The international trade in the shell stopped for 2 years. Shell could not be sold and sat in storage in Broome. Pearling crews could not work and the whole town suffered.

While the 1920s saw a recovery in the industry, the 1930s-1950s were difficult for Broome's pearl trade. The great depression made it hard to get good prices for pearl shell. The natural pearls found from harvested oysters were a rare bonus for the divers. Many fabulous specimens were found over the years. By the 1930s, over harvesting had severely depleted the oyster beds. The government was forced to strictly regulate the harvest to prevent the oysters from becoming extinct.

Divers in TOA gear

By 1939 only 73 luggers and 565 people were left in the industry and during the Second World War, pearling virtually stopped. Japanese divers discreetly went home or were interned.  Broome was bombed, destroying many of the remaining luggers.

After the war, anyone who had known Broome in its roaring days would hardly have known the place, and a mere 15 boats on average worked the fishery, employing around 200 people. 

The divers were mostly Japanese from the Taiji province. Their diving ritual would often begin by downing a bottle of port, before donning their diving helmets, after which they would be lowered over the lugger's side to spend hours underwater.

On the bottom they struggled about in their heavy gear, often almost horizontal, frantically scooping oysters into bags because divers were paid by the amount of shell they collected. Pity the diver on the bottom when his lugger was smashed by one of the four cyclones to catch the pearling fleet at sea between 1908 and 1935. The death toll for these is only approximate but it is known that more than 100 boats and nearly 300 Japanese perished, and are commemorated at the Japanese cemetery in Broome.

In total, more than 800 divers and their support crews lost their lives because of cyclones between 1882 and 1935. In only 3 years, 1912 to 1915, 93 divers died from the bends. These were boom years for the industry, but the price in human terms was very high. 

Commercial pearl culturing

The first commercial pearl culturing farm began in Western Australia in 1956. People in Broome began to look at growing pearls, rather than harvesting their shells. In 1956, the Kuri Bay cultured Pearl farm produced their first World Superior pearl. Today, Australia produces about 60 percent of the world's South Sea cultured pearls.

Pearl farming continues to be Broome's major industry. In 1992 there were 12 cultured pearl farms operating around Broome. Little of early days remains - a couple of luggers, a few historic buildings on new sites, rotting jetties, the Japanese cemetery of gracefully calligraphed stones, the modest but absorbing museum and a few helmets, now valuable artefacts and integral parts of pearl shop displays.

Seeding involves cutting a small section of mantle from a donor oyster and placing it next to bead which is implanted in the oyster, this grafting process forms a sac round the bead and excretes nacre, thus forming a pearl. The seeded oyster is then returned to the sea to recover before being taken to the pearl farm.

Normal growing time is two years but the cages are removed at regular intervals, the shells cleaned and rotated, to assure the best possible results in forming a cultured pearl.

Most farms now use X-ray machines to check if the bead has been rejected, if so the oyster can be reseeded.

Good healthy oysters can be seeded up to three times, producing a pearl every two years. Oysters that are still healthy are then used to produce "Mabe" or half pearls. This is done by cementing half beads of varying shapes onto the shell inside the oyster, up to seven can be placed in one oyster.

These are harvested by drilling the pearl shell with the pearl and processing the half pearl. These are made round, oval, drop or heart shape.

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