From the ceremonial reverence of Aboriginal people and the exploitation of Victorian industrialists to modern day culture and jewellery design, the pearl has played a pivotal role in the history of Broome.
Long before early European settlers discovered the abundance of pearl shell in the waters around Eighty Mile Beach south of Broome, traditional land owners including the Karajarri, Yawuru and other groups of the Dampier Peninsula valued the precious resource and traded it through exchange networks that crossed most of the Australian continent.
Serving both decorative and ceremonial purposes, the pearl shell was mainly harvested in shallow waters then cleaned and polished to create guwan (undecorated pearl shell). Often carvings were made into the pearl shell and rubbed with natural ochres to create designs of cultural significance. These riji (decorated shell) were presented to young men during ceremonies to mark their transition into adulthood. Wearing or holding riji was said to symbolise connection to country and ancestors.
While William Dampier was the first European to document pearl shell beds in Shark Bay on his 1699 voyage, it was not until the 1860s that the first pearling industry was established there, harvesting Pinctada albina pearl oyster. Within ten years, over-harvesting had depleted stocks and pearlers started to look further afield to Cossack and then north to the Dampier Peninsula.
In contrast to the Pinctada albina pearl oyster found in Shark Bay, the Pinctada maxima shells found at Eighty Mile Beach and later around Roebuck Bay were much larger in size, making their nacre or ‘mother of pearl’ (the iridescent substance forming the inner layer of the shell) highly prized for making buttons and other items. The industry boomed and by 1901 Broome was the largest pearling centre in the world.
In the early days of the frontier industry, when labour was scarce in the north west colonies, Aboriginal divers were used to work as ‘free’ divers, often being ‘blackbirded’ from coastal and inland areas where there was minimal policing. They skin dived without apparatus to up to 10 fathoms, often in appalling conditions leading to many Indigenous deaths. Depletion of the shallower pearl shell beds and legislation against slavery introduced in the 1880s led the European pearlers to indenture labourers from Malaysia, Japan, China, The Philippines and Timor to dive deeper using new hard hats and diving suits.
These Asian workers from Japan, China, Malaysia and the Philipines brought a wealth of experience about pearl shell harvesting with them. It was the mother of pearl lining that was the prized commodity, with actual pearls being found relatively rarely within the shells.
In the 1940s, following the introduction of plastics and plastic buttons in particular, the pearl shell industry virtually collapsed, with only a few pearlers returning to Broome after World War II and the Japanese War. By the 1950s the Japanese had developed techniques to culture round pearls and in 1956 the first cultured pearl farm was established at Kuri Bay, 400km north of Broome, named after the principal, Tokuichi Kuribayashi. By the 1980s there were five pearl farms operating in the Kimberley region and today most of Australia’s pearl farms are located here, making it one of the region’s major industries.
This new technology has made pearls more accessible, leading to a rapid increase in the popularity of pearl jewellery.
Australian South Sea Pearls, grown in the Pinctada maxima, are world-renowned for their superior quality and large size. They have also recently been acknowledged as the world’s most ethical and environmentally sustainable pearls after the Australian South Sea pearling industry of Western Australia was certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) last year.
According to Pearl Producers Association Executive Officer, Aaron Irving, Australia is the only pearling industry to utilise wild oysters which are sustainably collected from Eighty-Mile Beach, the last commercial fishery of its kind in the world.
“We understand intrinsically that the successful production of pearls is directly related to the area in which we operate,” Mr Irving said.
“After all it takes a high-quality environment to produce high-quality pearls… so for us sustainability also includes the preservation of our pearl farming environment.
“In short, certification against the MEC standard recognises our long history of sustainable management and stewardship of our pearl oyster fishery and enables us to readily communicate to our customers that their pearl came from a wild fishery operating to the highest standards of environmental and sustainability management,” he said.
“The MSC standard is an independent, internationally accredited, science-based standard, against which the environmental sustainability management of a wild marine resource fishery is rigorously assessed.”
There are plenty of ways to learn more and celebrate Broome’s renowned South Sea Pearl at Shinju Matsuri, from fine jewellery shopping in Chinatown, to tasting delicious pearl meat at the Pearl Harvest Yum Cha or experiencing the industry up close and personal on a tour to of one Broome’s famous pearl farms.