Western Australia: The queen of gems

By Megan Singleton

Timeless and elegant, who doesn't love pearls? Viva discovers the true beauty of this ocean wonder.

Willie Creek in Western Australia is one of the thriving pearl farms on the Kimberley Coast. Photo / Supplied
Willie Creek in Western Australia is one of the thriving pearl farms on the Kimberley Coast. Photo / Supplied

The pearl is the oldest gem in the world, with the first recorded parading of Neptune's jewels around the neck of a wealthy beauty dating back to around 3500 BC.

Found naturally in about one in 10,000 oysters, they are so rare that for you and me they might as well be extinct. Egypt's famously beautiful Cleopatra dissolved one in a glass of vinegar and drank it to prove her love for Mark Antony but if you did manage to get your hands on one, you probably wouldn't drink it.

Today, in the clean, warm waters of the Indian Ocean, just off Australia's Kimberley Coast, one of the world's biggest pearl industries has been thriving since the 1870s and even the rarest of the rare can sometimes be found here.

A pearl is really nothing more than the byproduct of an oyster's immune system, but oh, how we love them and thanks to the discovery by Kokichi Mikimoto in the early 1900s, we now know how to create them.

Most pearls sold today are cultured, but they still take years to grow in the membrane of an oyster, and West Australia has about 60 per cent of the white pearl supply sewn up. It's fiddly work being a pearl technician, not to mention back-breaking and boring - but it's good money if you don't mind peering into a slightly prised open shell for hours at a time with a pair of tweezers.

At Willie Creek Pearl Farm, just north of Broome, they show you the tricky art of oyster insemination and how to squeeze the gonad where the tiny Mississippi River shell "bead" gets inserted. The key is to feel around the slippery mess and locate the very tiny irritants that will never become pearls and pop them out. The oyster had already begun covering them with nacre, the hard shell membrane that makes them shine, but they were nothing more than odd-shaped flecks.

The selection of the oyster is just as important as correctly inserting the seed. The lustre and colour inside the mother of pearl shell is the colour that will be transferred, over about two years, to the seed, transforming it into the jewel that Cleopatra swallowed.

Here in the impossibly bright aqua waters of Willie Creek, oysters hang in metal cages under bobbing buoys strung in long lines. Tidal currents keep the shells relatively clean, although every few weeks they are lifted and any pesky barnacles and other gremlins are removed.

But this is just a tiny showcase of the company's vast farm. In fact, these ones here for visitors to cruise out to are the "naughty pearls" - the ones that have been x-rayed and found to be far from perfect. They are not round enough to live in the main breeding ground some 10km off shore. But it's nice to know that you don't have to be perfect to be wanted. These odd-shaped pearls have a market for those who love something unique but don't have a cool $3000 to drop on the perfect solitaire pendant about the size of a thumbnail.

The pearl is measured on five qualities: colour (typically silver or champagne), size (denoting how old it is), lustre (the iridescent quality of the nacre coating), shape (perfect orbs fetch top dollar) and surface quality (smooth and blemish-free).

Willie Creek Pearl Farm employs technicians who live on boats for days at a time before getting a few days off and returning again. A good technician can make up to A$120,000 ($155,000) in a three-month season and with nothing to spend it on until you come to shore, it's a highly sought-after job.

Ironically the Japanese are still the best pearl technicians in the world and they were the majority of pearlers here in the early 1900s on luggers when the industry first took off. Back then pearl divers risked their lives in the waters of Roebuck Bay, around Broome, to hand-pick oysters from the ocean floor using breathing lines from the surface.

By 1910 over 3500 men lived in Broome and spent their days diving for the shells that were used to make buttons, jewellery and inlaid into furniture. Many divers suffered from the bends and were said to be more comfortable below the sea than above it.

Sadly there is a Japanese cemetery in the middle of Broome with around 900 headstones belonging to pearlers.

When plastics hit the market, the lucrative mother of pearl business dwindled, but pearl farming is still one of the leading industries in Broome today.

The end of the pearl season is around August/September and each year since 1970 the Shinju Matsuri Festival is held to also coincide with the full moon and spring tides creating another reason to come here - the phenomena of the staircase to the moon, where the full moon rises like a gigantic pearl from the horizon and its light is caught on the tidal estuary floor.

PEARLS OF WISDOM

* This year's Shinju Matsuri will be held from August 31 to September 9.


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