Wednesday, 21 December 2011

History of Pearling in Broome

Pearls are exquisite organic gemstones that have been cherished and sought after throughout history. Some of the most dazzling pearls in the world are the South Sea pearls and especially those that emerge from the sparkling, clear turquoise waters around Broome in Western Australia. The history of pearling in Broome really began when the large, pearl containing Pinctada maxima oysters were first found in Roebuck Bay in 1861.  These are very large oysters, with some of them being as big as dinner plates, and back then they were harvested for the mother of pearl lining to their shell rather than the pearls that they contained, and within a very short time Australia was producing around 75% of the world’s mother of pearl.  Any natural pearls that were found were welcomed as an extra bounty from the sea.  The newly founded town of Broome was to become the centre of this emerging pearling industry and South Sea pearls were initially called ‘Broome Pearls’.

Pearl Luggers, Broome

 In the early days of diving for oyster shell and pearls, before there was any specialist diving equipment, young Aboriginal men and women were used to do the diving and they had to dive naked which led to their being known as ‘skindivers’. They dived for the oyster shells in water that was up to 12 metres deep, without any oxygen, masks or snorkels, and with absolutely no protection from dangers like sharks. Many of these young Aboriginal people had been rounded up and forced away from their families and were held in very harsh conditions, and certainly did not receive very much reward for their dangerous labour.  Their brutal treatment and the dangerous diving that they were forced to do, led to the deaths of many of these young Aborigines, and this slavery continued until the oyster beds in the shallower waters had been almost completely denuded due to over harvesting and equipment had to be introduced that allowed diving in deeper waters.

It was the introduction of this specialist diving equipment that really caused the boom of the oyster shell fishing industry.  The invention of diving suits made of vulcanised canvas, with heavy boots weighted with lead, and huge bronze helmets, meant that the divers could go much deeper than before, and could spend more time on the sea bed enabling them to collect more of the precious shells. The pearling boats or ‘pearl luggers’ were mainly owned by white Europeans known as Pearling Masters, but with the advent of diving suits the divers themselves were no longer Aboriginals, but were mainly Japanese men.  Most of these Japanese divers were indentured labour.  They owed a debt, usually the cost of their passage to Western Australia, and dived for shell to pay off that debt and hopefully earn some money to take home to their families.  However, the Japanese divers were paid by how much oyster shell they could collect, and accidents and fatalities were common, so very few of the divers ever did manage to pay off their debt and return home. There are reports that say that as many as 50% of the Japanese divers died, with shark attacks and the bends or decompression illness being major causes of death. Another cause of death and injury for the divers and crew of the pearl luggers was the unpredictable Australian weather, and whole fleets of pearl luggers were destroyed by cyclones while at sea.

The pearling industry in the seas around Broome boomed in the early years of the 20th century, and by 1910 there were approximately 400 pearl luggers and 3500 people involved in fishing for oyster shells in the pearling industry. Broome was a thriving and rowdy frontier town, with a vibrant, multicultural population comprising of Aborigines, Europeans, Malays, Chinese, Filipinos and Japanese.  When the pearl lugger fleets returned to shore after weeks at sea, much of the crew member’s hard earned cash would be spent in the taverns and eating houses that thronged around the docks of Broome.  In 1922 the Australian government became very worried that the new development in Japan of producing cultured pearls was a potential risk to the market for natural pearls, and banned them from being produced in the waters of Western Australia. But by the 1930s there was a severe danger that the Pinctada maxima oysters were going to disappear due to over harvesting of the oyster beds.  Diving for pearls and shell virtually ceased during the two World Wars, and in the 1950’s the development of plastic buttons, cutlery handles and ornaments substantially lowered the demand for mother of pearl, almost destroying the pearling industry in an instant.  The ban on producing cultured pearls in Australia was overturned in 1949 and this was what proved to be the saviour of the pearling industry and the pearling industry was buoyed up by the introduction of cultured pearls in 1956 by a joint Japanese-Australian company called Pearls Proprietary Limited at Kuri Bay some 420 kilometres north of Broome.

The production of cultured pearls in Australia grew over the following decades and these days 60% of the world’s South Sea cultured pearls come from the pearl farms sited in the seas around North West Australia. These South Sea pearls are renowned for their size, lustre and colour, which can range from pure white through creams, pinks, silver-white and gold. The average size of a South Sea pearl is around 12mm, although there have been pearls produced that are as big as 20mm. Cultured pearls are created by seeding an oyster with a spherical piece of foreign material such as shell.  This bead then acts as an irritant and encourages the oyster to coat the sphere in a thin layer of nacre which builds up slowly over time. The hope is that when the oysters are harvested after a couple of years, the pearl farmers will find an abundance of very high lustre, completely round and flawless pearls, although the reality is that on average only about 20% of the harvested pearls will be flawless. The overall high quality of Australian South Sea pearls, however, is such that they do not have to be tinted, dyed, bleached or skinned.  They are just removed from the oyster, cleansed of salt and accumulated debris and graded for sale; their soft, glowing beauty needing no further embellishment. There are many showrooms in Broome displaying beautiful jewelry made from Australian cultured South Sea pearls, so go and wander around Paspaleys, Linneys or Willi Creek Pearl Farms showrooms to find your perfect pearl necklace, earrings, ring or bracelet.  If you want to find out more about the history of pearl diving in Broome, spend some time at Pearl Luggers or if you want to see where it all happens go on a trip to the Willie Creek Pearl Farm.

Willie Creek Pearl Farm, Broome

So what is the future of the pearling industry in Broome?  Unfortunately, the ongoing global financial crisis has dramatically cut the demand for South Sea pearls, which has led to the pearl growers in Western Australia stopping pearl seeding and production of pearls has fallen by about 40%. To produce a pearl the oyster shell has to be maintained in favourable conditions in the water for about two years, which is an ongoing investment in time and money. The pearl farms have done this to cut costs and survive, but the worry is that if demand for South Sea pearls suddenly goes up due to an improving worldwide financial picture that the pearl farms will not be in a position to produce enough pearls to satisfy the market. But Broome and the pearling industry have survived many catastrophes and unfavourable world events in the past, and will hopefully go on producing these beautiful pearls from the sea for us all to enjoy.