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wholesale pearlsThe fascinating and colorful history of natural pearling in Australian waters is presented, from the early six-man luggers to the large ships in modern fleets where pearl culture has been the focus for the past several decades.

For the scientific investigation of this paper, the authors retrieved natural pearls from wild Australian South Sea Pearls Pinctada maxima in Australian waters and recorded the various properties that might help to differentiate between natural pearls from this mollusk and those that are accidental by-products of the culturing process.

Three distinct categories of host Australian South Sea Pearls Pinctada maxima shells and mantle pearls were collected and examined by the authors:

  1. from wild shell prior to any pearl culturing operation,
  2. from wild shell after pearl culturing and approximately two years on the farm, and
  3. from hatchery-reared shell prior to pearl culturing. Data were collected from microscopy, X-rays of internal structures (using realtime microradiography and X-ray computed microtomography, various forms of spectroscopy, and LAICP-MS chemical analysis. The results showed that microradiographic structures previously considered indicative of an accidentally cultured Australian South Sea Pearls P. maxima pearl may not be conclusive, and that such criteria should only be applied with the utmost caution by an experienced technician. (Reference: Australian South Sea Pearls)
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According to Cilento (1959), natural pearls have been found off the western and northern coasts of Australia since well before European settlement in the early 19th century. Coastaldwelling Aborigines and fishermen from Sulawesi
had collected and traded pearl shell for possibly hundreds of years.

The pearling industry in Queensland dates from 1868, when Captain William Banner, of the Sydney brig Julia Percy fished the first cargo of pearl shell from Warrior Reef. Captain Banner noticed the natives preparing for a dance, and saw they had big mother-of-pearl pendants round their necks. He made a bargain with Kebisu, mamoose (chief) of the headhunters of Tutu, who, for generations, raided the islands of Torres Strait in their great war canoes. Perhaps the menace of Banner’s shotted fore and aft guns, which could far out-range the eight-foot bows and barbed arrows of the black bowmen of Tutu, had something to do with the friendliness of the blood-thirsty and crafty Kebisu and his headhunters. In return for tomahawks and iron—the most valuable things in their eyes—they gave Capt. Banner as much as he wanted of what they considered the common and relatively valueless pearl shell and pearls. (Reference: Australian South Sea Pearls)

Capt. Banner and his crew won a rich harvest from the coral sea, for pearl shell was then worth £150 a ton in Sydney; and Banner collected many large pearls. (Cilento, 1959) Pearling, particularly for the recovery of natural pearls from the most remarkable of all pearl oysters— Australian South Sea Pearls Pinctada maxima—in the adventure-strewn waters off the Australian coast, has a diverse and fascinating history. This history may be eyed through the literary skills of authors such as E.W. Streeter and Louis Kornitzer, who hailed from a time when natural pearls were objects of great value and wrote about them with passion and wonder.

As one delves into the history of pearling in this region, it is difficult not to become wrapped up in a wondrous web of adventure and intrigue, danger from every conceivable corner, and the ecstasy of the ultimate find: a lustrous sphere, perhaps with that smoothly flattened side that gives it the shape of a button, or slightly elongated to form a teardrop, exposed within the mantle with the gills glinting behind it, the curtained backdrop to this pearl’s debut on the world’s stage Kornitzer takes us on a helter-skelter ride through his journeys from Singapore down through the island realms that encase the Java, Banda, Celebes, and Timor Seas and ultimately into those wild waters that run from Exmouth Gulf and up through Broome and on to Darwin.

His stories are the very epitome of boyhood adventure dreams, leaping from the pages to convince the reader that “a pearling he must go”: It was as a humble young dealer in Hatton Garden that the urge to adventure came to me, that strong, compelling urge like a kick in the pants, which is produced by the fact that one’s family is hungry and growing. I had a chance to go pearl-hunting in the tough pearling grounds in North-Western Australia, and I took it. From Australia the chase for pearls led me in half a lifetime all around the world, but I was a stone that rolled slowly enough to gather a minute quantity of moss. At any rate, I have never regretted it. One looks back with a strange satisfaction on the lonely and risky periods of one’s life. As I was the first white trader ever to penetrate into the pearl fisheries of the Sulu Seas, I still have a proprietary feeling about that part of the world. (Kornitzer, 1947a). (Reference: Australian South Sea Pearls)

These stories are eloquently told and retold in books such as Hurley’s Pearls and Savages (1924), Berge and Lanier’s Pearl Diver (1930), Benham’s Diver’s Luck (1949), and Bartlett’s The Pearl Seekers (1954). Each work adds yet another layer of intrigue to an incredible adventure. Lately, other highly informative and passionate accounts of Australian pearling have emerged. Two of particular note are The Last Pearling Lugger: A Pearl Diver’s Story (Dodd, 2011) and The Pearls of Broome: The Story of TB Ellies (Ellies, 2010). Dodd’s book brings the reader up to the early 1980s, when the luggers (figure 2) left service in favor of the much larger vessels in use today. The latter work recounts the incredible story of the Sri Lankan immigrant T.B. Ellies, who was one of the world’s finest “pearl doctors” of the late 19th century. Practitioners of this lost art enhanced the appearance of a pearl by carefully
removing blemishes on the outer layers.

Like many others in the Australian pearling industry, Ellies made his home in the town of Broome (figure 3). Activity had initially centered around Nickol Bay and Exmouth Gulf, but by 1910 Broome was the largest pearling center in the world. Indeed, pearling remains an important part of the Western Australian economy, albeit largely through the cultured market. In the mid-1880s, the famed English jeweler, entrepreneur, and author E.W. Streeter moved to Broome with his son (G.S. Streeter, a prolific author in his own right) and became heavily involved in pearling. By 1890, the elder Streeter had acquired significant property on the outskirts of the town, establishing a general store and owning one-eighth of the pearling fleet. Renowned for his great work Pearls and Pearling Life (1886) among others, he is also credited with the introduction of hard-hat diving. Indeed, the Streeter name is indelibly linked with the chronicles of this great pearling town (figure 4; Smith and Devereux, 1999). (Reference: Australian South Sea Pearls)

Lennon (1934) describes hard-hat diving as one of the “world’s most dangerous occupations.” He notes, “Divers may work up to 30 fathoms [180 ft], but 22 fathoms is the average depth to which they descend. After bottoming the diver is pulled up a couple of feet and permits himself to be towed along by the lugger. Sighting shell, he signals to his tender, who lets him drop.” Wearing an extremely cumbersome helmet and boots, the diver “works kneeling on his right knee and gathering with his right hand, taking good care to keep his head erect. If his head gets down, the air in his dress may shift and he would shoot aloft, feet first.”

Not recommended, as the normal method of ascending is to haul up the diver very gradually before surfacing, thus avoiding potentially fatal divers’ paralysis, commonly known as “the bends.” Beyond the romance of the written word, early pearling in the region may somewhat be likened to the American “Wild West,” as witnessed by fisheries
inspector Pemberton Walcott. In his report covering the period from April 15 to June 30, 1881, he writes I have on good private information the following, which will require immediate investigation. During last pearling season, the majority of the fleet being at anchor in or near LaGrange Bay, three bush natives were killed by some De Grey River pearling natives; some time, days after, the bush natives retaliated by killing some De Grey pearlers (two or three), when the latter mustered in force, and in fact seem to have organized an expedition and followed the natives up, slaying all they surprised. I have reason to believe twenty to thirty were killed.

His report concludes It frequently occurs that, in holding any communication with the shore, a vessel has to run up creeks and is left high and dry at low water, so at the mercy of the natives, and no white man should land without means of protecting himself, for it may and does frequently happen that however friendly natives be at one time they maybe [sic] found hostile and troublesome at another, in consequence perhaps of some act which they may consider themselves bound to avenge. (Walcott, 1881) (Reference: Australian South Sea Pearls)

The data provided in a report on North Western Australia’s pearling industry to the attorney general by the chief inspector of fisheries (Gale, 1901) explain why intrepid adventurers came to such remote and often inhospitable places. Between 1889 and 1898, some 5,556 tons of pearl shell with a value of £587,181 were “declared” (table 1).

While the annual haul fell between the beginning and end dates, the actual monetary amount rose slightly. Gale’s report also provides some insight into the pearling industry of the time. He noted that during the year from June 30, 1900, 177 boats were officially licensed. This represented a total tonnage of 2,480 tons, with the 159 luggers averaging 10 tons each. The 18 schooners, employed mainly as supply vessels and as storage for shell haul, ranged from 30 to 100 tons. Gale noted that each lugger carried a crew of six, with the diver in command. He added that a large amount of capital had been invested in each lugger: an average of £550 (£51,500 or approximately US$80,000 in 2011, adjusted for inflation) for a fully outfitted vessel. The approximate value of the fleet was £8.19 million, or
US$12.7 million today. (Reference: Australian South Sea Pearls)

Gale also provides us with some interesting asides concerning the value of pearls recovered during this period. He notes (as did other authors of the period) the difficulty of estimating this value from the quantity of pearl collected, due to heavy illicit trading of snide.1 But taking figures from the statistical register for the previous 10 years, he estimates the value to be £300,000, or £28,101,000 today. He comments that these large numbers were somewhat offset by the costly expenditures involved: The average amount paid to the crew of each lugger was about £220, not including a £20 bonus to the diver for every ton of shell collected.

Kornitzer (1937) brings to vivid life the world of snide pearl trading in Broome in recounting one of his experiences. While fishing off the “long Wooden Pier” (probably referring to what is now known as Streeter’s Jetty; figure 4), he is approached by a smuggler named Da Silva, who tells him: Master, you buy fifty-grain round pearl, oh such a beautiful thing – you got thousand pounds in your pockit? If not I trust you. Master, you can sell it for two thousand for sure. I’ve got her here, you like to see?

To control the shady business of snide, one P. Percy designed a box (patented in 1910) to securely hold any pearls found by the shell openers onboard the luggers. Pearls were placed in the box (figure 5) through a round hole in the top. The pearls went into the box along a “bent tube.” The bend in the tube ensured that even if the box were tipped upside-down, the pearls would remain inside. All pearls recovered would be placed in the locked box for delivery to the owner upon docking.

In reality, the skipper had little time for monitoring what went into the box and what did not. His primary concerns were the navigation of the vessel and the safety of the divers. It was therefore more of an “honesty box” than a true deterrent. Judging from the many texts that have alluded to it, a brisk business in snide pearls was prevalent in Broome.

Broome was indeed the Wild West of Australia, and just like any frontier settlement it was full of intrigue and character. One cannot write about the history of Broome without mentioning its Japanese cemetery (figure 6), the largest in Australia. More than 900 Japanese pearl divers are buried here in over 700 graves. The site testifies to Broome’s close ties with the people of Japan and the enormous importance of pearling in the region. (Reference: Australian South Sea Pearls)

The first interment was recorded in 1896, and a plaque at the entrance to the cemetery acknowledges the great many men lost to drowning or divers’ paralysis. A large stone obelisk bears testimony to those who perished in the 1908 cyclone. It records the 1887 and 1935 cyclones, each of which caused 140 deaths. In 1914 alone, decompression sickness claimed the lives of 33 men. Not mentioned are victims of scurvy, the disease caused by vitamin deficiency, which was brought on by subsisting on fish and rice for many weeks aboard the luggers.

Articles source: Kenneth Scarratt, Peter Bracher, Michael Bracher, Ali Attawi, Ali Safar, Sudarat Saeseaw, Artitaya Homkrajae, and Nicholas Sturman – GEMS & GEMOLOGY, WINTER 2012
south sea pearls wholesale (Reference: Australian South Sea Pearls)

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