South Sea Pearls of Australia

19 Apr

So far Broome has been a much-welcomed relaxation period for me. My past few days have consisted primarily of reading, laying out, swimming, and socializing by the Kimberly Club’s pool. Before arriving in Broome, I had the full intention of finding short-term employment as a pearl diver. Broome is, after all, the pearl capital of the world! I heard the pearling boats leave for 10 days at a time and pay about $150 per day (and provide free food and accommodation). I thought being a PADI Divemaster would be plenty of qualification. However, upon arrival I talked to employers at Paspaley (very rude!), Clipper, and Cygnet Bay Pearls (LOVED them!) and soon discovered that actual pearl diving requires a significant amount of training as well as a certification a step beyond commercial diving – something entirely different.

Backpackers are often used as kitchen hands or “Marine Growth Removal Technicians,” meaning they shuck all the soft corals and such that grow on the oysters that could potentially cause disease or deteriorate the shell. One of my friends in the Kimberly Club hostel was employed to do this work. Chris described this task as difficult, boring and smelly. He continues to participate in this line of work every year though because of the high rewards and time off between trips. The boat takes 20-40 people out for 10 days at a time. Then they split into teams of 3 and depart from the larger vessel onto much smaller boats where they spend the entire day cleaning the oyster shells of their designated area. All the romanticism of pearls totally evaporates in that atmosphere. Chris swears he will never again purchase a pearl, and he was quite disheartened when I decided that I would spend today on the Willie Creek Pearl Farm tour and the Pearl Luggers tour. But I have no intention of becoming a Marine Growth Removal Technician, and I still like pearls. So when you’re in the pearl capital of the world, you gotta see it first hand while you have the chance!

Willie Creek pearl farm

Willie Creek

Even though Willie Creek is located 16km North of Broome, the drive is 38km – 17km of which are via unsealed red dirt road. When our coach dropped us off at Willie Creek, one of the WC employees took over the tour. We were seated under a small stadium-seated pavilion for a lecture on the modern cultured pearling process as well as a demonstration on how to seed a live oyster to produce a pearl (and how to remove it).

Pearl Farming

Broome’s famous South Sea pearls are produced by the gold or silver lip pearl oyster, Pinctada Maxima. Pinctada, meaning “pearl-producing,” and Maxima, meaning “largest.” This particular oyster can grow to be 30cm in diameter and weigh up to 5 kilos. It was first discovered in Roebuck Bay back in 1861, which is what set Broome on the map for the pearling industry.

Nowadays, divers collect about 600,000 wild shells from the coast of Western Australia each year with the legal size being at least 120mm. Hatcheries are also becoming more popular, and these are only required to be 90mm. They are then laid to rest in the pearl farm for 4 months to acclimatize to their new location. When ready for their first pearl seeding, they are held on board seeding vessels in large re-circulating tanks. When the water drains, it takes a few hours for them to relax and open up, then the technicians are “pegged” open with a wedge, similar to a door stop. This allows the technicians to perform the seeding operation without the oyster snapping shut prematurely.

Pearl Technicians

Pearl technicians are highly skilled (and highly paid) professionals, performing up to 500 operations per day. Yikes! A typical career path would include a degree in Marine Biology, then a job as a deck hand on board one of the seeding vessels plus 8 years worth of training. Then Day 1 as a pearl technician, they would be expected to perform hundreds of these operations.

Pearl technicians generally work for 3 months annually and will be paid about $80k on salary plus a commission as high as $50k if their oysters produce good quality pearls. That’s 3 months of work and then 9 months of doing whatever else they please until the next season. Some technicians will finish their work harvesting and seeding South Sea pearls in Australia and then spend another 3 months doing the same thing in Tahiti. That’s still 6 months of vacation! Why did no one tell me about this growing up?

Growing and Producing a Cultured Pearl

Natural pearls are created when an irritant, such as a grain of sand or other organic material, makes its way into the oyster shell. In order to protect its mantle tissue, the oyster then secretes its mantle tissue, creating a pearl sac around the irritant. It’s basically the same act as when we put wax over our braces when we first get them to lessen the irritation. Oysters do this naturally to protect their tissues, and the result just happens to be a beautiful pearl!

Pinctada Maxima interior

[Note: 95% of these oysters naturally contain a small oyster crab inside, which help clean the oyster and protect it from parasites.]

Cultured pearls take advantage of this natural reaction from the oysters by implanting a small nucleus formed from the shell of the Mississippi mussel into an incision made in the oyster’s gonad, which is located in the direct center of the shell. This makes it less likely for the oyster to reject the nucleus and push it out of its shell. Once this operation has been completed, the shell is then safely housed within a pearl panel and placed on the ocean floor to undergo a turning process to encourage the production of a round pearl.

panel of oysters

After letting the oysters rest for a period of 10 days succeeding their seeding operations, the technicians examine them to make sure that the oysters have accepted the nucleus. If not, the oysters are re-seeded again. If the oyster rejects the nucleus a 2nd time then the shells are sent to the “Naughty Farm” in order to produce Keshi (seedless) pearls. 85% of the oysters will usually accept the nucleus and produce a pearl.

After a period of 2 years, the technician will carefully remove the pearl that has formed and replace it with a nucleus of a comparable size to that pearl that was removed. 2 years later, the same process is repeated. The oysters are generally only re-seeded 3 times, producing a total of 4 pearls – each larger than the previous one. After 8 years of this process (2 per pearl), the shell is much larger, but also less likely to accept another seeding. Therefore the shells are then retired from pearl-making and are used for other mother of pearl products.

Pearl Products

Before grinding the shell down, Mabe (or half pearls) are made. These are formed by adhering plastic shapes to the inside surface of the oyster’s shell, and then the oyster will overlay the plastic with mother of pearl secretion for a period of around 12 months, similar to they way it does with a nucleus for pearls. While still on the shells, they resemble blisters, but once trimmed to make jewelry, they’re gorgeous! And only half the price!

The mother of pearl (shiny interior of the shell) is used for a variety of different causes. Initially the pearl button was the main source of income for pearl divers, even more so than pearls since the pearls are extremely rare to find naturally.  Now the mother of pearl is used to make holograms (such as that found on your credit card), car paint, cosmetics, and furniture inlay.

mother of pearl buttons

Nothing is left to waste! Even the pearl meat (abductor muscle) is retained for use as a delicacy in restaurants. Delicious! Much less chewy than conch or other mollusk meats you would have tried.

The pearls themselves are graded upon 5 different qualities: complexion, luster, size, shape, and color.  Complexion and luster are really the most important because the rest are considered more of a personal preference. The more shiny, large, smooth and round they are, the more expensive they generally are. But as the saying goes, “You don’t choose the pearl; the pearl chooses you.”

Some simple rules of thumb can protect you from buying fake pearls. Rule #1: if it looks too good to be true then it probably is. When buying a chain of pearls, they shouldn’t all be exactly alike. No single pearl is perfect so you can check their personality by looking for bumps or dimples on the surface. If unsure, you can rub the pearl against your teeth, and it should feel gritty and organic rather than smooth like plastic. If you reallyyyyyy want to be sure, then you can drop your pearl in some vinegar. If you come back and there’s only the nucleus left, you know it was real.

Side note:  There is a story of Cleopatra inviting Marc Antony over for the most extravagant dinner banquet ever thrown. It was a massive feast, but Marc Antony told her at the end of the meal that it was wonderful, but quite similar to all her other feasts. She then poured 2 cups of vinegar and dropped both of her nicest pearl earrings in each of the cups. After it completely deteriorated, she then drank the vinegar. Marc Antony didn’t drink his, but agreed that it was indeed the most expensive feast to which he had ever been invited.

Pearl Luggers

After the Willie Creek tour, I continued back to the city for the Pearl Luggers tour, in which they discuss the old methods for collecting mother of pearl (and sometimes pearls).

The oysters were gathered from Roebuck Bay and other areas surrounding Broome by hundreds of divers in pearl luggers (specialized boats). Rather than diving up and down all day, they found it more efficient to have an air supply cranked down to the divers at depth via an air pump and hose, where the divers would scrape along the bottom, picking up shells. The divers would collect the shells in a bag around their neck, and once it filled, they would send the bag to the surface and wait for them to drop the next bag.

model of a pearl lugger

retired pearl lugger

In regards to safety, the system was horrific! They were armed with a firefighting helmet, weighing 35kg, plus another 70kg of weights around their neck, and “mother in law” boots made of wood, leather, and copper, weighing 12kg each, just to help keep them grounded on the ocean floor.

pearl diving equipment

pearl diver suit and manual air pump

They would spend as many hours under the sea as there was light provided by the sun with the exception of one speedy lunch break (and an exchange of urine bags). Even though they would reach as deep as 80m, they never made any sort of decompression stops on their way up because it was too time consuming. Therefore many pearl divers died of the Bends, a decompression illness in which nitrogen expands upon ascent and blocks your blood flow, prohibiting oxygen from reaching the brain. Scary stuff! Nowadays, decompression chambers can help stabilize divers with the Bends before it becomes fatal by putting them in a chamber with a similar atmospheric pressure for a couple hours and slowly returning them to a normal state. But back in the “hard hat era” these Saltwater Cowboys were risking their lives for the chance of making millions.

the hard hat era is not one for the fashion diaries

These procedures finally stopped in 1975 (??!??!?!!!) when spear-fishermen proved to the pearl divers that SCUBA diving equipment and proper safety stops were actually more efficient than the methods they had been using. 1975!!!!!!!! I think that was the biggest mind-blowing fact I learned all day. SCUBA divers have been modifying and perfecting safe diving methods for decades, while these pearl divers were wearing 130-135kg of weight and risking their lives upon descent. Craziness!

I apologize for the long post, but I hope you found it informative if you made it all the way through. Please feel free to ask me any more questions because believe it or not, I spared a great amount of detail! If anyone makes it to Broome, I highly suggest these tours.

$25,000+ pearl

At the end of today, I made 2 decisions: 1) I’m going to start wearing my pearls when I get home. 2) I’m going to start traveling more. Sydney was great, but there’s so much more to see and learn!

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One Response to “South Sea Pearls of Australia”

  1. Linsey 18 July, 2013 at 10:47 AM #

    Thanks for the time you took to write that, I found it really informative and useful! Trying to decide between Cygnet Bay and Willie Creek and it sound like they’re both winners! Appreciated 🙂

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