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A short history on South Sea pearls in Australia

It’s sometimes overlooked that Australia is one of the world’s great pearl-producing centres.

History

It’s only really in the later 20th century that Australian history was revised away from an almost exclusive focus onBritish and European settlement to include the Aboriginal or First Nations people.  This is important because the facts remind us that pearl fishing in Australia and the Torres Islands started long before the first Europeans arrived.

The original inhabitants had been raising shells and pearls for centuries and trading them across a wide part of Australia, in fact, to an extent this is still being studied today.

In terms of mass production though, the story really begins in the mid-19th century in Western Australia and spreading to parts of Queensland explaining in part, why Queensland annexed the Torres Islands due to their pearl shell wealth.

The industry peaked in and around Broome in WA, when pearl shell production began on an almost industrial scale. In fact, for a time, Broome was the biggest pearl shell harvesting centre in the world.

As with so much early colonial history, the facts regarding Aboriginals in the pearl industry make highly distasteful reading. The Aboriginals were essentially forced in virtual slave-like conditions to dive without any form of assistance. Due to the appalling accident and mortality rates, Japanese and Chinese pearl-drivers were brought in but the mortality levels conditions continued well into the early 20th century.

Decline

During the First and Second World Wars, the Australian pearl shell industry virtually collapsed due to men and equipment being diverted to war production or combat.  The loss of the Japanese workers at the end of 1941 due to internment, was another major blow.

To make matters worse, post-WWII, plastic became available in many shapes and colours and incredible as it seems to us today, was for some years seen as a trendy and highly desirable material. Demand for pearl shell fell again.

Yet the position wouldn’t last.

The modern industry

Tastes change and after the mid-20th century, demand for pearls grew again.

However; the bad practices of farming in the earlier periods meant that supply was reduced and the rarity of pearls was reinforced in the minds of discerning buyers.

Another factor which heavily influenced the industry was the development of cultured pearl techniques, which were picked up with enthusiasm in Australia. In fact, by the late 20th century, the pearl industry around Broome had picked up again and was booming.

Today, Australian pearl production is safe sophisticated and in full swing. The country produces around $130 million a year from the pearl products of pearl shell, the delicacy of the pearl meat and the lustrous cultured South Sea pearls which are known and valued around the world.

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