History & Cultivation
In the 1880's South Sea pearls were first discovered off the northwest coast of Australia, near the city of Broome, in Roebuck Bay. These oysters were also prized for the beautiful mother of pearl and were exported all over the world for buttons and other finery. Within a few years, Australia became the world's top exporter of mother of pearl, meeting about roughly three-quarters of the world's demands.
South Sea Pearls History
At first, these oysters were plentiful and easily found in the sandy shallow waters of the bay. As demand grew and the oysters were being depleted in shallower waters, it became necessary to dive to greater depths. Early diving and air delivery methods were developed at this time. One of the main methods was a hard hat diving. Dangers facing divers included the bends as well as strong tides, sharks, jellyfish and storms. In the 1930's the oyster beds had been depleted and the natural industry declined.
Natural Pearls Formation
Oysters take nutrients from the microscopic particles and organisms in the ocean water by opening their shells slightly to allow water to flow in. As a result, small irritants such as small ocean animals can also float in. Parasites can also drill right through the oyster's hard shell. To protect itself, the oyster forms a sac around then secretes layer upon layer of nacre onto the irritant. After years, this results in a lustrous pearl.
Cultured Pearl Beginnings
In the 1950's, Australians established their first commercial pearl farm. New techniques and methods were developed in the following decades to nurture these fragile oysters and ensure future populations. The farm was established at Brecknock Harbor. This is about 250 miles north of Broome. The farm was assisted by a Japanese contingent in providing culturing technology and know-how. The bay was renamed Kuri Bay in honor of the man leading that Japanese team - Tokuichi Kuribayashi. Today, it is the oldest and largest farm.
Image Source: National Archives of Australia