Wandering through the showroom at Willie Creek Pearls, I resign myself to leaving Broome empty handed. It’s not that I can’t find a pearl that I like; the problem is that most of the jewellery I like is way beyond my budget. After all, how many of us can afford to spend $5000 for a perfect pearl or $100,000 for a pearl necklace?
Willie Creek Pearls Farm Tour
With half a day to spare I join a Willie Creek Pearls Farm tour on the banks of Willie Creek, 38 kilometres south of Broome.
The first part of the tour is in a sheltered open-air presentation area.
A well-informed guide provides us with an encyclopaedia of information on cultivating Australian South Sea pearls.
$250 million worth of Australian South Sea pearls are harvested in Australia each year; the equivalent of 10,000 pearl necklaces.
The guide hands out Pinctada maxima shells, oysters and pearls of different lustre, sizes, colours and shapes.
We compare white pearls with those that have rose, gold and silver tinges. There are round, button, drop and baroque-shaped pearls.
Myths and legends around pearls
Between the mid-19th century and 1914, Broome’s pearling masters supplied 80 percent of the world’s mother-of-pearl.
Most of the divers who worked in Broome were from Japan. There were around 400 luggers and more than 3500 people.
It was a tough job for those divers who worked here as many died from the bends, cyclones and sharks.
Natural pearls are formed when an irritant, such as a grain of sand, enters the body of a pearl oyster.
As a protection, the oyster coats the irritant with nacre, the pearly matter in the interior lining of the pearl oyster.
Perfectly round natural Broome pearls are rare. Actually, in Broome, Australian South Sea pearls are cultivated commercially using the Australian silver-lip oyster, Pinctada maxima.
It’s a long and expensive cycle to produce perfect Broome pearls.
Highly trained pearl technicians perform the delicate seeding operation where a small nucleus, usually made of mother-of-pearl shell or a bead of Mississippi pig-toe mussel shell, is inserted into an incision in the oyster’s gonad (reproduction organ).
Producers expect four year’s production from a good oyster but the odds decline after the first pearl.
The statistics are interesting: around 50% of oyster shells produce a second pearl, with only 30% producing a third and 5% a fourth.
Most of the technicians who seed the oysters are Japanese, however Australian technicians are being trained.
They work six- to eight-week stints at each farm and are highly paid, earning $100,000 for three month’s work.
Anatomy of an oyster
After a crash course on the anatomy of an oyster, a volunteer is picked from the audience. And gleaming dental-looking tools are thrust into his hands. His task is to extract the pearl from an oyster.
The procedure is slippery and awkward. Eventually, the volunteer gives up and the guide demonstrates how it is done.
The next part of the tour is a cruise of Willie Creek Pearls farming operations on the water on board Mutiari Putri.
The waters around Broome provide a nutrient-rich environment that produces big beautiful Willie Creek pearls.
Long lines of white buoys floating on the surface mark spots where pearl panels are suspended in the water below.
Another guide shows us how to clean the seeded pearl oysters in the mesh panels and talks about how they are nurtured until the pearls are ready for harvest.
Back in the showroom, pearls worth thousands of dollars are passed around and reluctantly handed back.
We learn how to choose a pearl according to five virtues: surface, lustre, size, shape and colour.
I leave the showroom with a white Australian South Sea pearl hanging around my neck. It’s not perfectly round (and didn’t cost me anywhere near $5000) but it has become one of my favourite pieces of jewellery.
Christina Pfeiffer was a guest of Tourism WA
Qantas, Virgin Blue and Skywest fly from Perth to Broome.
The Willie Creek Pearl Farm tours run daily in Broome, tel: (08) 9192 0000. The business has showrooms in Broome, Perth and Melbourne.
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