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Dive Into Broome's Fascinating Pearling History

September 13, 2021

Dive Into Broome's Fascinating Pearling History

Broome is a holiday favourite for residents of WA and the perfect place to escape the chill of the south during the winter months (it’s pretty amazing during the rest of the year too!). For the remainder of the country, it is a buck list destination filled with iconic experiences, like watching camel trains wander across expansive Cable Beach against the backdrop of the famous Indian Ocean sunset.

It’s fascinating to think that this coastal town, a bustling tourist destination and melting pot of multiculturalism produces the best pearls in the world – Australian South Sea Pearls which are revered and known for their exceptional size and lustre.

The saying “Broome was built on buttons” all began after the Pinctada maxima oyster, the largest pearl shell in the world, was first discovered in Roebuck Bay in 1861. The tides, temperatures and nutrient rich waters of the coast off northern WA combine to provide perfect conditions for this oyster to thrive. At this time, “Mother of Pearl” shell was used not just for making buttons, but for many household objects such as cutlery handles and hair combs.

Old Broome Jetty

In its early days, commercial pearling was treacherous work; lugger fleets were subject to cyclones and the divers faced the hazards of sharks, strong ocean currents, jellyfish, decompression sickness and wound infections. Between the 1860s and 1880s, the earliest divers were local Aboriginal people, both men and women, called ‘bare pelt divers’ who dove naked into waters up to 12 metres deep to collect shell.

By the early 1900’s Broome was supplying 80% of the worlds Mother of Pearl at a record price and was the most cosmopolitan town in Australia. The new breed of divers wore hardhat diving suits, heavy 12-14kg ‘one size fits all’ suits paired with metal boots, a lead waist belt and weights, and a helmet. Fully dressed a diver could weigh in excess of 180kgs! The multiculturalism of the divers, a mixture of Malays, Koepangers (from West Timor), Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos and Ceylonese, has contributed to the amazing diversity in Broome today. You can still see this represented as you walk down the streets in the fascinating architecture and delectable food offerings.

Unfortunately, World War 1 interrupted the great success of the industry. Most of the industry’s labour pool immediately joined the war effort and the industry was left without sufficient labour or resources to maintain its fleets. This was a challenging time and the industry struggled through, surviving on government subsidies.

By the 1920’s the trade had recovered, with the price of shell soaring again. Then disaster struck once more with the start of World War 2.  The industry was ground to a halt – the labour force was enlisted into the war effort a second time, while Japanese pearl divers were taken into prisoner of war camps.

During the war, in Japan, all of the Japanese pearl luggers were destroyed. This devastated the Japanese Pearling Industry, however the countereffect skyrocketed Broome’s Pearling Industry. With the new rise to success, a record price was paid for pearl shell. Broome and the industry were at the top of their game and the town was booming.

Then, a completely unforeseen and unexpected development took place: the invention of the plastic button! Invented in America in 1958, this creation rocked the pearling industry to the core. Overnight, pearl shell became worthless because the plastic button was stronger and cheaper. Without great use for Mother of Pearl, a shadow was thrown over the industry.

Enter the greatest pivot seen yet! Kokichi Mikimoto was a Japanese entrepreneur who is credited with creating the very first cultured pearl. Known as the father of modern pearling, Mikimoto brought his findings to Australia in 1965 and the pearling industry was transformed! Mikimoto found that pearls in Australia matured in two years instead of four and doubled in size compared to the Japanese pearls. These amazing Australian South Sea Pearls produced in Broome contributed to 60-70% the world’s pearls by the 1970’s.

Attend an event in Broome today and you will see all the necks of Broome’s females (and some males!) adorned with amazing strands of pearls produced in the area. These pearls are renowned for their virtues: size, lustre, shape, complexion and colour. Synonymous with Western Australia, Broome pearls are purchased and adored by lovers of pearls across the world.

Today’s pearling industry is highly regulated and by the 1980's, wooden luggers were replaced with more efficient and functional steel and aluminium ships, while diving gear was replaced with modern industry equipment.

The pearling industry in Western Australia's northwest continues to prosper and is renowned for producing the largest and best quality pearls in the world, the Australian South Sea Cultured Pearl.

You can learn more about Broome’s fascinating, diverse and colourful history on a Pearl Luggers Tour which showcases archival footage and rare diving artifacts. The venue also features two full size replica pearling luggers.

To understand more about the modern pearling industry, join us on a Willie Creek Pearl Farm Tour. Not only will you be captivated by the stunning colours of the Kimberley in this remote and picturesque location, but you will learn about the entire pearling process from the seeding of an oyster (still based on the original process developed by Kokichi Mikimoto!), cruise the azure waters of Willie Creek to view oysters suspended in their natural habitat, and experience a live pearl harvest (a recent tour harvested the most valuable pearl to date).  

Or, perhaps, you’d like to view the stunning product that Broome is famous for.


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