Australian south sea pearls

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Through careful resource management, industry best practice and a respectful partnership with Nature, Australia is today recognised as the source of the world’s rarest and most valuable pearls.
This is the story of the Australian pearling industry.

The Beginning

The cultured pearling industry is a young one – barely 100 years old. By contrast, divers have gathered wild oysters for their natural pearls for at least 4000 years.

Pearl fishing is thought to have begun in the Arabian Gulf and Gulf of Mannar. Pinctada radiata, the primary species of pearl oyster in these regions, produced fine quality pearls in small sizes, with rare exceptions exceeding 12 grains (approximately 8mm).

Historically, larger pearls from Pinctada maxima oysters came primarily from the Malay, Mergui (Burma) and Sulu (Philippines) archipelagos. Traders began bringing pearls from Sulu to India and the Middle East after Malaysia's adoption of Islam sometime between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries AD. Pearls were traded from the Malay Archipelago for nearly 400 years.

When colonists discovered the pearl beds of the Caribbean and Panama around 1500, great quantities of pearls from the Pinctada mazatlanica oyster made their way to Europe. The trade in pearls from the Americas resulted in a period known among jewellery historians as ‘The Great Age of Pearls’, however by 1650, these shell beds were on the verge of extinction from overfishing.

The next great boom began when compressed air diving allowed access to the rich pearl oyster beds off the coast of north-western Australia in the mid-nineteenth century.

By 1910, Broome had become one of the most important pearling centres in the world, with nearly 400 luggers and over 3500 people employed in the fishery.

Natural pearls from the Australian Pinctada maxima – today known as the Australian South Sea pearl oyster – were soon recognised as the finest in the world, as noted by Kunz in his seminal text "The Book of the Pearl".

Such was the importance of natural pearls to the economy that in 1922, the Australian Government passed legislation prohibiting the culturing of pearls, to protect the natural pearl industry. This law remained in effect until around 1950.

As a result of a strict quota system that ensures that catches are maintained at sustainable levels, and the good fortune of an isolated and pristine environment, Australia now has the world's last significant beds of wild Pinctada maxima oysters.

Australian South Sea pearls are now cultured using a process that mimics the natural cycle as closely as possible. Important natural pearls are still occasionally discovered and due to their rarity they can command extraordinary prices.

The Modern History of Pearling


Commercial pearling commences in Australia

With the discovery of the world's richest pearling beds off the Western Australian coast, Broome quickly rises to become a main source for one of the most important industries in northern Australia. With over 100 pearl luggers operating out of Broome, it provides 75% of the world’s mother-of-pearl. In 1875, The Pearl Fishery Regulation Act is implemented to control the taking of pearl shell, and by 1890, the fishery spans from the coasts of Shark Bay to Thursday Island.

North Western Australia

Beginning of the cultured pearl era

British scientist William Saville Kent conducts experiments in Thursday Island in an attempt to replicate natural South Sea pearls. The technique for producing spherical cultured pearls is eventually developed and patented by Nishikawa and Mise in Japan. Image courtesy of

Thursday Island

Mikimoto pioneers the cultured pearl industry

Mikimoto opens his first shop in Tokyo’s chic Ginza district in 1899. After years of persistent research, Kokichi Mikimoto becomes the first person to succeed in the commercial production of fine quality cultured pearls in 1905, and over the next thirty years the Japanese Akoya industry grows to 350 pearl farms.


Nicholas Paspaley Sr. begins pearling

After migrating from Greece and settling in Cossack, Western Australia, Nicholas Paspaley Sr. captains his own pearling lugger at the age of 18. In 1935, he finds an important natural pearl in the Cossack area, the same year the Western Australian pearling fleet is destroyed by a major cyclone. The proceeds from this pearl form the start of a pearling dynasty.


The decline of the mother-of-pearl industry

After a hiatus during World War II, fishing for mother-of-pearl resumes in 1945. Over-fishing combined with decreased demand caused by the invention of plastic substitutes soon devastates the industry. Fleets of luggers lie abandoned on the beaches. The fishery remains in decline until the establishment of the Australian cultured pearl industry in the mid 1950s.

North-western Australia

First Australian pearl farms established

Mr. Nicholas Paspaley Sr. of Australia, Mr. Alan Gerdau of America, and Mr. Saku Kuribayashi of Japan, meet and discuss the commencement of two Australian culture projects; Gerdau and Kuribayashi in Western Australia and Paspaley in the Northern Territory.

Kuri Bay

Kuri Bay established

Kuri Bay is established as a joint venture between the American and Japanese partners, operating under the Diamond Policy that stipulates that there be a limited quota, that the pearl technique be kept secret, and that all pearls produced must be marketed in Japan. In 1962, Paspaley opens a farm at Knocker Bay in the Northern Territory’s Cobourg Peninsula under a similar arrangement with Arafura Pearling Company.

Kuri Bay

Hard-hat diving makes way for the hookah system

After "hookah" diving techniques are adopted by the pearling industry beginning in 1971, collecting pearl shell with the full suit dive helmet is phased out. Traditional Broome luggers B1 and B2 are the last pearling luggers to change to hookah diving in 1974. Image courtesy of Bruce Farley.


Paspaley opens independent pearl farm

After concluding the original Arafura joint venture in 1970, Paspaley reopens the Knocker Bay farm in 1972 with Junichi Hamaguchi, an independent pearl technician. The partnership operates outside the Diamond Policy Agreement, allowing Paspaley to market its own pearls for the first time.

Knocker Bay

The development of oyster transport techniques and processes

Nick Paspaley AC, modifies the lugger ‘White Star', installing hookah diving apparatus and radar as well as salt water tanks. This enables live oysters to be transported from the pearling grounds to its Northern Territory farm.

Darwin to Broome

The beginnings of a modernised industry

The world's first purpose-built fibreglass pearl diving vessel, MV Paspaley Pearl is built at Nishi Shipyard Japan. The vessel arrives in Broome to fish the 1974 season, before returning to Darwin and fortunately surviving Cyclone Tracy. At 29 metres, she is the largest fibreglass hulled vessel in Australia at that time.

Nishi Shipyard, Japan

Paspaley enters partnership with Kyokko Industry Co.

Paspaley forms a joint venture arrangement with another Japanese partner, Kyokko Industry Co., at that time a related company of the Pentax Corporation. During the next three years, Paspaley establishes pearl farms either independently or in joint venture with Kyokko Industry Co. and Shima Shokai pearling company in Raffles Bay, Port Bremer and Darwin Harbour.

Knocker Bay

First operations on the pearling grounds

After years of developing and trialling entirely new pearling systems and techniques, Nick Paspaley AC achieves success with experimental longlines enabling operations to begin on the pearling grounds rather than at the pearl farms. This lowers oyster mortality rates and is the single most important development to revolutionise the Australian cultured pearl industry. The first operations on the grounds are achieved aboard the MV Paspaley II at Cape Bossut, south of Broome.

Eighty Mile Beach

Nicholas Paspaley, MBE

Nicholas Paspaley Sr is made a Member of the British Empire by the Commonwealth of Australia for a lifetime of service to the pearling industry.

Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia

Pearl Producers Association and Diving Code of Practice established

To preserve wild shell stocks, the WA Government initiates the Pearl Industry Review quotas of pearl oyster fishing. The Pearl Producers Association (PPA) is formed, and includes a Pearl Divers Safety Committee operating according to Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) guidelines. Paspaley plays a leading role in this organisation from its inception until present day.

Western Australia

MV Paspaley III launched

MV Paspaley III, a 45 metre vessel, is purpose-built as a stable operations platform with an enclosed operating area. It features significant shell-carrying capability for efficiently transporting operated shell to the pearl farm.

Nishi Shipyard, Japan

Sotheby's South Sea pearl necklace sells for record price

An Australian South Sea pearl necklace produced by Paspaley sells for USD$2.3 million at Sotheby's in New York.

New York

MV Paspaley IV launched

MV Paspaley IV, the world’s most advanced pearling vessel, is launched. It has unprecedented shell-carrying capacity and cutting-edge pearl shell operating conditions. MV Paspaley IV is 51 metres in length with a crew of 55 men and women living and working in an unequalled level of comfort and safety.


Paspaley Pearl discovered

A rare 20.4mm pearl, round, with a strong pink orient is found at Vansittart pearl farm off the Kimberley coast of Western Australia. Larger round pearls have been discovered but none with this combination of size, quality and beauty. This pearl is later displayed in the Smithsonian Institute alongside some of the world’s most important and high profile pearls - including La Peregrina and the Hope pearl.

Osborne Islands

La Peregrina sells for $11.6 million USD

La Peregrina, one of history's most famous pearls, sells at Christie's for a pearl jewel world auction record of USD$11.8 million. The history of this pearl spans approximately 500 years, with famous past owners including Josephine Bonaparte and Elizabeth Taylor.

Starting in the late 1800's, this interactive timeline takes you on a journey through the history of Australian pearling. Learn about the key influencers that have worked to make Australian South Sea pearls some of the worlds rarest.

Pearling in Australia

Beautifully filmed in black and white, this classic short film looks at pearling in Australia in the late 1940s.

From the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.
A Department of Information production.
© 2011 National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

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