Broome, Australia Pearling History

The first divers were Aborigines, many of whom were kidnapped, then brutally exploited and abused – forced to dive to dangerous depths. By the late 19th century, pearling masters, often the younger sons of English gentry, were recruiting men from China, Japan, the Malay peninsula and the Dutch East Indies for the difficult, perilous task of diving for mother-of-pearl – for it was the shell, used to make buttons, that was valued then; a pearl found inside was just a bonus.


The Japanese came to dominate the industry, which peaked in the early 1900s, when Broome supplied 80 per cent of the world's pearl shell. Man-made buttons eventually killed off the shell trade, but cultured pearls restored local fortunes, and today Broome pearls remain the world's most highly prized.

The town's rich multicultural past, meanwhile, is visible in the features of its inhabitants, who can point to a hotch-potch of ancestry – Japanese, Malay and Aboriginal, for instance. The annual Shinju Matsuri Festival of the Pearl celebrates Broome's particularly close links with Japan.

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Australian Pearling Research

Professor Bernie Degnan, from the School of Biological Sciences, received $382,000 to understand and improve the quality of Australian South Sea pearls.

“Recently, mass-produced freshwater pearls from Asia have markedly increased in quality and begun to compromise our prestigious South Sea Pearl market,” Professor Degnan said.

“This presents Australian pearlers with a challenge to maintain market identity by improving their pearl quality and consistency. By adding genomics to the existing Australian pearl industry armoury we will help not only to maintain the premier position of the Australian South Sea Pearl in the market, but also to move it further ahead.”

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Broome, Australia, Built on Buttons

Broome, Australia, Built on Buttons

Pearls mean a lot in Broome. It's fair to say the town wouldn't exist if it wasn't for those creamy nuggets, which are now cultured, but in the 1800s were found in their thousands in giant pinctada maxima shells that could be picked off the shore at low tide.

The locals say Broome was built on buttons, because what brought Britons (as pearl masters) and Chinese and Japanese (as divers and deckhands) to this pocket of WA was the shells: the mother-of-pearl was shipped out and used to make buttons. Pearls were a bonus.

The town grew as word spread of the booty to be found under its seas, and it became a melting pot of nationalities. By 1900 it was producing 75 per cent of the world's mother-of-pearl. Fleets of pearl luggers would berth at its harbour. It had a population of 4000, 3000 of whom came from Asia.

Monument to Japanese Pearl Fishermen, Broome, Kimberley, Western Australia, Australia, Pacific




Monument to Japanese Pearl Fishermen, Broome, Kimberley, Western Australia, Australia, Pacific

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The inevitable Chinatowns and Shanytowns sprang up, and with them the opium dens and "colourful lifestyles", as one local put it.

All went swimmingly until the 1950s, when the worst happened: plastic buttons. Broome went into a decline. Residents left in their droves. One of the many people I met during my visit told me that during the 70s and 80s Broome had gone from pearl capital to dole capital of Western Australia. Young people came for the weather and lifestyle and that was it.

Enter a modern-day equivalent of the 19th-century pearl master. In the mid-1980s, Lord Alistair McAlpine, treasurer of the Conservative Party during Margaret Thatcher's time as leader, chanced upon Cable Beach.

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Australian Prime Minister Wears Pearls!

Australian Prime Minister Wears Pearls!

WHAT do you give a woman who has just become the nation's first female prime minister?

In Julia Gillard's case, jewellers Kailis were clearly paying attention when she once declared it was “dress like a Tory day”.

In the weeks after she became PM, the West Australian jewellers sent her a pair of $2000 Kailis pearl earrings and a mother-of-pearl pen.

Ms Gillard appears to have a predilection for pearl earrings and pearl necklaces, as she showed on the campaign trail. On election night, she wore both.

However she did not keep the Kailis earrings and instead handed them over to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The parliamentary register of members' interests shows Ms Gillard was showered with gifts after becoming Prime Minister in June.

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Western Australia Pearl Growers

Western Australia pearl growers facing challenges.

North-west pearl producers have slashed pearl seeding in recent years in response to falling sales.

Production is currently down 40 per cent and a quarter of the state's pearl farms have been mothballed.

Association president Brett McCallum hopes the situation will turn around in the next 12 months as the American market recovers from the economic downturn.

Waves Breaking on the Beach, Western Australia, Australia


Waves Breaking on the Beach, Western Australia, Australia

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"It's very difficult, you can't leave the shell in the water and not do anything with them. It's different to a mining situation where the resource still sits in the ground until you dig it out," he said.

"These are live animals and once your production is in the water and it's a two year period you have to keep going forward with the investment that you've made in those shells.

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