Growing Pearls

Article | Updated 6 months ago

The pearl is the only gem that is made by a living creature ... it represents life, as every other gem is made by the passing of time and decay. That’s possibly one of the reasons why we find them mesmerising.

Marilynne Paspaley AM, Director Paspaley Pearls, 2015

Pearls are rarities of nature. The world’s sole aquatic gems; they are unique in being produced through biological rather than geophysical processes. Unlike diamonds and other minerals, pearls do not need to be cut or refined; they appear fully formed.

People have tried to harness and cultivate these natural phenomena for thousands of years. In the second century AD, the Greek writer Philostratus described in his Life of Apollonius how divers would pierce pearls with a long pin in order to extract a white liquid which they collected in small iron moulds. In thirteenth-century China, carved pieces of wood and lead were inserted into mussel shells to create nacre-covered figures of Buddha.

It was not until the early twentieth century that spherical pearls were first cultivated. This triggered a new pearling industry, beginning in Japan’s Akoya pearl farms and eventually spreading to Australia and across the world. As the pearlshell market slowly waned, determined Australian pearlers forged a new era of pearl farms.

A group of different coloured pearls.

Over millennia people have valued pearls as symbols of prosperity, power and beauty. The development of cultured pearls renewed the pearl’s significance.
Courtesy Cygnet Bay Pearls 

Unlocking the Cultured Pearl

It’s this biological process that’s just really fascinating. The way pearls grow and the beauty of the shell and the way we sort of harness nature’s mechanisms ... Pearl seeding is something that looks very simple ... but there’s all these tiny little subtleties.

Berni Aquilina, pearl technician, 2000

Round pearls are cultivated by implanting a nucleus in an oyster. The animal protects itself from this foreign body by secreting layers of nacre around it, thereby forming a pearl. This intricate technique, called ‘seeding’, requires great precision and took centuries to perfect.

The first European to grow pearls was probably Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, who inserted limestone beads into mussel shells in 1761, producing small but poor-quality pearls. Other Europeans followed with similar results. In Australia in the late 1800s, scientist William Saville-Kent experimented with techniques similar to those used in thirteenth-century China. By inserting hemispherical beads into oyster shells, he successfully produced half (or mabe) pearls.

A breakthrough occurred in 1904 when two scientists in Japan, Tatsuhei Mise and Tokichi Nishikawa, patented a technique to cultivate round pearls. Both had connections to Australia and may have benefited from the work done by Saville-Kent, who reported discovering the technique but died before he could publish it.

While there is debate over who discovered the method, it was Japanese pearler Kokichi Mikimoto who introduced cultured round pearls to the global commercial market in 1916. However, Japanese technicians closely guarded the technique, and it was several decades before Australian pearlers joined the new market. Pearling companies continue to be secretive about the details of their operating rooms.

A man working with a pearlshell.

Mikimoto inserts a nucleus into a pearlshell.
Public domain image 

A group of different coloured pearls.

Australian South Sea pearls take about two years to grow inside Pinctada maxima pearl oysters.
Courtesy Cygnet Bay Pearls

Image of an experimental pearl-shell cultivation site

Saville-Kent’s photograph of an ‘experimental pearl-shell cultivation site’ in Broome, Western Australia, c. 1897. His experiments were driven by concerns about the sustainability of natural pearl beds.
Courtesy William Saville-Kent, The Naturalist in Australia (1897)  

Pinctada maxima pearl oysters.

Pinctada maxima pearl oysters.
Courtesy Cygnet Bay Pearls and Paspaley Pearling Company.

Pinctada maxima pearl oysters.

Pinctada maxima pearl oysters.
Courtesy Cygnet Bay Pearls and Paspaley Pearling Company. 

Image of a pearl

Only about 20 per cent of cultured pearls are spherical.
Courtesy Paspaley Pearling Company  

Cultivated half pearls

Cultivated half pearls, also known as mabe or blister pearls.
Courtesy Cygnet Bay Pearls 

Australia's New Pearlers

A gem-quality pearl is so rare and difficult to produce ... all our pearls tell the story of a century of human risk and endeavour.

Penny Arrow, pearl farmer, 2007

In 1921 Australian pearler Ancell Gregory, working with Japanese entrepreneur Yasukichi Murakami, attempted to establish a cultured pearl farm in the Montebello Islands. However, the farm was prohibited after other pearlers lobbied against its potential threats to the pearlshell market. The next year, the Western Australian government passed legislation banning the manufacture or trading of cultured pearls. By mid-century, though, Australia’s traditional pearling industry was barely alive: men and luggers were lost to war, and plastic buttons were destroying demand for pearlshell. In 1949 the ban was repealed.

Australia’s first cultured pearl farm opened at Kuri Bay in 1956. Trading under the name Pearls Proprietary Limited (PPL), American and Australian pearlers teamed up with Japanese counterparts, who provided technical know-how. Others ventured into the budding industry, but pearl-culturing knowledge remained concealed. Finally, in the 1960s, after tireless experiments, Lyndon Brown became the first non-Japanese technician to cultivate round pearls at Cygnet Bay. He shared and further developed his skills with Aboriginal colleagues such as Aubrey Tigan and Tom Wiggan.

In the next decades, farms proliferated along the north-west coast, including family businesses such as Kailis, Arrow Pearls, Clipper, and Hamaguchi, Australia’s first solely Japanese-owned pearl farm. By the 1980s the industry was in a boom. PPL’S Nick Paspaley steadily rose to his peak, eventually taking over PPL and other farms.

Kuri Bay in the 1960s.

Kuri Bay in the 1960s. The farm was named after company principal Tokuichi Kuribayashi, of Nippo Pearls.
Courtesy Trevor Gorey 

Two men carrying a crate.

Japanese and Torres Strait Islander crew at Kuri Bay, c. 1960s.
Mario Marlos, courtesy Nyamba Buru Yawuru  

Working on the rafts at Kuri Bay.

Working on the rafts at Kuri Bay.
Mario Marlos, courtesy Nyamba Buru Yawuru

A man holding a tray of pearls.

Cygnet Bay’s Lyndon Brown with mabe pearls. These pearls were easier to grow, providing cash flow while pearlers refined techniques to cultivate round pearls.
Courtesy Cygnet Bay Pearls 

The Evolution of Pearl Farming

[You have] to understand the environment to a whole new level so you can not only keep this animal alive but make it thrive and keep it safe ... whilst it slowly grows a precious gem in it.

James Brown, Manager Cygnet Bay, 2015

“It was always exciting. Although you can see the shape and glimmer of the pearl, you have no idea what is going to come out. Sometimes you would put your halo in, thinking it is only a small pearl, but you pull out this big, monster of a pearl. When you get those, the whole room would stop.”

Jasmyn Cook, pearl seeder for Arrow Pearls.

Australia’s pearl farmers worked hard to develop new knowledge and innovative techniques in a quest to grow perfect pearls. They became increasingly devoted to the care and well-being of oysters, particularly as disease outbreaks started putting entire farms out of business in the 1970s. Wanting to maintain and refine stocks, pearlers such as Dr Patricia Kailis developed new standards in husbandry and hygiene by resting shells, sterilising equipment, and isolating diseased shells. She and others such as Steve Arrow pioneered a transition from rafts to submerged longline systems, which spread shells further apart beneath open water, and anchored them on lines to guard against currents and monsoons.

Pearlers also shifted from harvesting large pearlshell to cultivating young small shells. These had to be transported safely and rapidly, prompting Cygnet Bay to introduce a non-wooden and lightweight pearling lugger, the Cygnet Lass. In 1974 Paspaley unveiled the Paspaley Pearl, thefirst of the ‘floating laboratories’ that signalled the end of luggers altogether. These vessels let technicians clean and operate on oysters without removing them from their natural habitat.

Pearlers continue adapting to this day, with innovations such as hatchery-bred shell, which bolster farms’ wild stocks. However, they still contend with major environmental threats like disease, predators and cyclones.

Image of a person working with a pearlshell.

Pearl technicians develop intimate connections with the live creatures they operate on – the success of a pearl farm being literally in their hands.
Courtesy Jasmyn Cook 

A pea crab inside an oyster.

Pea crabs live inside every healthy oyster, Technicians have recognised they may help an oyster’s hygiene and wellbeing.
Courtesy Jasmyn Cook 

An image of pearlshells being hauled to the surface of the ocean.

The longline system gives shells more space than the raft system introduced by Japanese pearlers at Kuri Bay.
Courtesy Cygnet Bay Pearls   

An oceanscape.

The longline system gives shells more space than the raft system introduced by Japanese pearlers at Kuri Bay.
Courtesy Cygnet Bay Pearls   

Image of a boat.

A pearlshell cleaning boat. These custom-built workboats are equipped with machines that clean shells with high-pressure water. Oyster hygiene is imperative; most farms clean shells at least monthly.
Courtesy Cygnet Bay Pearls 

Selling Pearls

What is the perfect pearl? A pearl is graded and valued on lustre, size, shape, colour and the skin ... But having said all of this, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Patricia Kailis AM OBE, Governing Director MG Kailis Group, 2003

Natural pearls have always attracted a market. Through economic tides they have remained valuable: from Cleopatra’s fabled priceless pearl to the Peregrina pearl, prized for nearly 500 years and sold in 2011 for over £7 million ($13.7 million). Australia’s ‘Southern Cross Pearl’ was said to be worth £10,000 ($19,500) in 1886.

Australian pearl dealers began in Cossack, Western Australia, during the late nineteenth century, with London jeweller Edwin Streeter and Australian businessman Arthur Male. They soon moved to Broome’s booming pearl industry, later joined by Chinese dealers like Sam Sue and Louey Ling Tack, and Singhalese jeweller Thomas Bastion Ellies, known for his proficiency ‘skinning’ pearls (surgically peeling away imperfections). Outside of legal trade was ‘snide’ – pearls smuggled from luggers, usually by shell-openers.

Image of different pearls on plates and pearlshell

Natural pearls from Thursday Island in 1921. They range in size and shape, from perfectly round to irregular baroques.
Courtesy National Library of Australia 3314159

An image of different coloured pearls.

Australian South Sea pearls are some of the largest and most lustrous in the world.
Courtesy Paspaley Pearling Company  

A man standing outside his store.

Pearl dealer Sam Sue at his Broome shop on Sheba Lane, ‘the street of pearls’.
Stuart Gore, courtesy State Library of Western Australia 022181PD

The New Market

The emergence of cultured pearl farms transformed the pearl market, with increased stock, quality control and accessibility. At Kuri Bay, New York dealer Allan Gerdau quickly cornered this market in the 1950s. As jewellery sales surged in the next decades, farms such as Cygnet Bay set up their own retail stores, bypassing dealers and catering directly to customers. 

The international market has proven particularly lucrative. Though controlled until the 1990s by Japanese pearl cartels, today dominant sellers like Paspaley (who produce over half of Australia’s pearls) benefit from developing markets in Asia, America and, to a lesser extent, Europe. 

At the same time, Australian pearlers face serious economic instability. The industry was severely hit by the global financial crisis and is still recovering, with only a small number of producers and sellers operating today. They also face growing competition from Asian hatchery-bred oysters and freshwater pearls, and an enduring preference for natural over cultured pearls. Paspaley has responded to this by promoting the unique beauty of Australia’s South Sea pearls, and by advocating that natural pearls discovered in farms be afforded the same value as those found in the wild. Along with major sellers such as Kailis and Linneys, Paspaley also offers bespoke pearls, grown and perfected for clients over years.