A Fortune in Shell

When pearls and pearling is discussed in Broome, the conversation is usually about gems. Not just any gem, but the Australian South Sea pearl – the largest and highest quality pearl in the world, grown locally in the biggest “pearl oyster” shell, the Pinctada maxima. The pearl gem industry is fascinating, but vastly different to the pearling industry which gave birth to the town that is Broome today.

During the mid-1700s mother-of-pearl buttons, made by jewellers, became a fashionable addition to aristocratic wardrobes in England and Europe. Demand for shell products, in particular buttons grew. By the end of the 18th Century it led to assembly line-like production, and good quality pearl shell was highly sought after.

In 1699 explorer William Dampier first reported pearl shell oysters along the northern coast of Western Australia. More than a century later his reports were confirmed by settlers and visitors to the area. Commercial activity began around Shark Bay, resulting in the first exports of Western Australian pearl shell in 1862.

There was more to come. Newspaper coverage about the discovery of plentiful beds of a new type of shell - the huge Pinctada maxima shell further north in Nickol Bay created a commercial goldrush. Towns and camps sprang into life, and fortunes could be made. The race to collect shell began in earnest.

Collecting shell in shallow water was easy, but once the shallow shell beds were depleted pearlers started operating from boats in deeper water. Aboriginal people were sought after as divers because of their sharp eyesight, natural athleticism and water skills. It was punishing work, rarely well rewarded. In the 1870s the growth in demand and limited number of Aboriginal workers gave pearlers a reason to look for recruits from overseas.

Hard hat diving, an incredibly dangerous occupation, started in the north-west around this time, allowing access to deeper oyster beds and giving divers longer periods underwater. This brought workers from Japan and Malaysia, many of whom would never return home. With no knowledge about decompression illness, the bends was a common condition. The Japanese Cemetery in Broome is testament to the diving fatalities common in the pearling industry, through working hazards, cyclones and intense tropical storms.

Traders of many nationalities set up businesses to service the burgeoning industry. Boat building gave birth to a fleet of timber pearl luggers, which worked the waters north of Shark Bay right up to the Torres Strait.

Broome was gazetted as a town in 1883. It became a melting pot of nationalities and cultures. The pearling industry wove them together into a colourful tapestry. 

Although local authorities tried to establish racial boundaries, Aboriginal and Asian people socialised naturally after dark, and gave birth to the wonderfully multicultural community which is now one of Broome’s truly unique legacies. You can see it in the faces of the children, taste it in the exotic local cuisine and hear it through local language and musical expression.

Pinctada maxima pearl shell from around Broome was recognised internationally, and its outstanding lustre and value was lauded by the most highly regarded button makers in France and England. Broome became synonymous with the highest quality shell making the world’s finest buttons. In 1910 Broome was a bustling hub known as the world’s pearling capital and fortunes were made with each annual harvesting season.

Broome was producing around 80% of the world’s mother-of-pearl. By 1912 the industry employed over 2,700 people and ran 400 plus luggers. Chinatown was the heart of the industry in Broome 

A walk around Chinatown today still reveals echoes of its heyday, when boarding houses jostled for space alongside gambling dens, geisha houses, noodle cafes, laundries, emporiums and general stores. Many of the historic buildings are how heritage listed, and homage is paid to the original businesses which operated there.

It’s worth spending a few hours in Broome’s awardwinning Historical Society museum, where photos, documents and displays give life to the town’s exciting history. With its remote  location, exotic population, incredible wealth and wild west reputation, Broome became the inspiration for many stories both factual and fictional.

The power and influence of the pearling industry was evidenced by Broome’s exemption from the White Australia policy in 1916. This allowed the pearling masters to continue to employ the predominantly Asian crews manning their luggers. 

Pearls, especially round gem quality pearls were never the focus of the industry, but rather regarded as a lucky find. Ceylonese jeweller Thomas Ellies, based in Broome, was widely regarded as one of the best pearl ‘skinners’ in the business, able to remove surface imperfections without compromising, and often increasing a pearl’s value.

When the Japanese developed cultured pearls early in the 20th century, maverick Captain Gregory started trying to culture pearls in an area south of Broome. The Australian pearling industry initially saw this development as a threat to their pearl shell industry. So much so that their lobbying and influence triggered the 1922 Pearling Act, which prohibited anyone in Western Australia from producing cultured pearls.

The end of the second world war, and the emergence of the plastics industry saw the collapse of the pearl shell industry in Australia’s north west. Broome shrank, businesses closed and in 1949 the Pearling Act was repealed making it legal to culture pearls in Western Australia.

Australia’s first pearl farm was set up in 1956, majority owned by Americans and partnered by Japanese experts. Not long afterwards, Lyndon Brown became the first non-Japanese to culture loose pearls commercially and in 1960 Dean Brown created the first all-Australian cultured pearl farming business on the tip of Dampier Peninsula at Cygnet Bay.

More operators followed, hard hat diving was superceded by modern scuba equipment, and again Broome became known for the produce of the Pinctada maxima oyster – this time for gems of incomparable colour, quality and size. World class jewellery designers and retail outlets now reside in and alongside the historic buildings of Chinatown. In Dampier Terrace, sometimes referred to as ‘the Pearl strip’ original lugger beachfront sheds have been renovated into luxurious showrooms.

With vastly different industry dynamics, the pearl gem industry flourished in Broome through international demand and local tourism. It boomed during the 80s and 90s, peaking at 16 companies employing some 2,500 people and producing an annual pearl crop worth around $300million.

This all changed again with the production of vast numbers of lower quality pearls produced internationally using chemical enhancement (these pearls are known as “Maeshori” and their production is never disclosed to consumers). Laboratory produced replica pearls commonly known as “shell based pearls” also added to the competition in this market. Whilst these new pearl products make great low-cost trinkets, they fade and fail quickly unlike genuine high quality pearls which remain beautiful for generations.

Today the pearling industry is rebuilding, and the Broome region continues to produce the most extraordinary and valuable pearls in the world. In 2015 a new participant entered the WA pearling industry, with an award-winning tourism business investing in pearl production by purchasing a pearling licence, lease and quota.

TAKEAWAYS – whether you are a visitor or a Broome resident, finding out more about the industry which gave birth to this town is a fascinating journey. Allow a couple of hours for a visit to the Broome Historical Society Museum and the Broome Pearling Timeline Wall in Cygnet Bay Pearls’ Dampier Terrace showroom. Pearl Farm Tours are offered by Willie Creek
Pearls, Cygnet Bay and more recently by Paspaley.  If you don’t have time to visit the farm, Cygnet Bay’s showroom perform live pearl harvests and Australian pearl grading classes in their exhibition space. Books about the industry and pearling stories can be purchased
at the Kimberley Book Store in Napier Terrace. Many long term locals have pearling stories of their own to tell.

By Elisabeth Lucke, edited by James Brown and the Broome Historical Society, with reference to the “LUSTRE” publication which is well worth owning. It is sold at the museum, at Kimberley Bookstore and at the Cygnet Bay showroom

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