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wholesale pearlsGiven the region’s long history of natural pearling, there can be little doubt that the vaults of important dealers worldwide, including those in Europe and the Arabian Gulf, contain a large number of treasures gained from Australian waters.

Pinctada maxima in these waters indeed produce some of the finest known natural pearls in all sizes and shapes. But as production emphasis shifted to the highly successful “South Sea” cultured pearls, the casual observer began to overlook the natural pearl. And over the last few decades, the natural pearl even strayed from the minds of those most closely associated with the fishing of this incredible mollusk. Indeed, it had become economically unimportant to them.

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Thankfully, the focus is shifting again, and natural pearls from Pinctada maxima are now edging their way back into the minds of those who love all that is rare and beautiful (N. Paspaley, pers. comm., 2011). Perhaps due to the prevalence of snide, few records exist of notable natural specimens from Australian waters, even though it can be assumed that most, if not all, of the largest nacreous natural pearls have been the product of Pinctada maxima rather
than a smaller pearl oyster.

In P.O. Lennon’s interesting account of the Australian pearl industry, a plate illustrates several “empire” pearls and five “Indian” pearls (three drops and two rounds) weighing 9.32–48.92 grains. There are also six somewhat larger “Australian” pearls: one near-perfect round weighing 110 grains, two offrounds (18 and 20.80 grains), and three drops (a pair totaling 62.80 grains and a single weighing 86.80 grains). In August 1949, an account of a major pearl find was reported in the Northern Standard: More than five tones [sic] of pearl shell brought back to Darwin this week has been declared by local shell experts to be of the finest quality ever to be taken in Darwin waters, either before or since the war. The shell represents the catch of two luggers belonging to Mr. Nicholas Paspaley, who said it promised well for future operations of his fleet.

In addition to the shell, the luggers brought back a perfect drop shaped pearl estimated to weigh between 50 and 60 grains. Local authorities say it is the best pearl taken in Darwin since operations commenced after the war. Mr. Paspaley said that last year he had taken a pearl weighing 106 grains but its quality was much inferior to the one brought in this week. (“Pearl shell,” 1949)

In 1917, a Japanese diver working for James Clark (the “Pearl King”) discovered the Star of the West, a 100-grain beauty also known as the Broome pearl. This specimen was described in the July 1918 edition of The Colonizer as a “perfect drop with a skin of iridescent luster diffused with a pinkish glow.” Other pearls of similar size are loosely recorded as the A. G. Russel, a 100-grain perfect round; the Eacott, a large drop; the Bardwell, a double button; the Rodriquez, a 92-grain perfect round; the 100-grain Hawke and Male; and the E. G. Archer, a 76-grain drop.

But the most storied Australian pearl is unquestionably the Southern Cross (figure 8). Kunz and Stevenson (1908) describe its history with both fascination and some disdain: The “Southern Cross” is an unusual pearl or rather cluster of pearls which attracted much attention twenty years ago. It consists of nine attached pearls forming a Roman cross about one and one half inches in length, seven pearls constituting the shaft or standard, while the arms are formed by one pearl on each side of the second one from the upper end. The luster is good, but the individual pearls are not perfect spheres, being mutually compressed at the point of juncture and considerably flattened at the back. If separated, the aggregate value of the individual pearls would be small, and the celebrity of the ornament is due almost exclusively to its form. This striking formation was exhibited at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition at London in 1886, and later at the Paris Exhibition in 1889, where it was the center of interest, and obtained a gold medal for the exhibitors. It is reported that an effort was made to bring about its sale at £10,000, the owners suggesting that it was especially appropriate for presentation to Leo XIII, on the occasion of his jubilee in 1896. The writers have been unable to obtain information as to its present location.

Henry Taunton (1903) offered further details on the Southern Cross in a very interesting account of his Australian wanderings. He presents apparently reliable statements showing that it was found on March 26, 1883, at Baldwin Creek, off the coast between Broome and Derby (figure 9). It was discovered by a boy named Clark, in the employ of master pearler James W. S. Kelly. It was delivered to Kelly in three distinct pieces, though the boy reported that he found it in one piece a few hours earlier. Kelly sold it in three pieces, receiving £10 from a fellow pearler named Roy. Roy sold it for £40 to a man named Craig, who in turn dealt the pearl to an Australian syndicate.

According to Taunton, there were only eight pearls in the cluster when it was sold by Kelly in 1883. To make it resemble a well-proportioned cross—the right arm being absent—another pearl of suitable size and shape was subsequently secured in the town of Cossack and attached in the proper place. In the meantime, the other pearls had been refastened together by diamond cement, for a total of three artificial joints in the cluster: As if to assist in the deception, nature had fashioned a hollow in the side of the central pearl just where the added pearl would have to be fitted; and the whole pearling fleet with their pearls and shells coming into Cossack about this time, it was no difficult matter to select a pearl of the right size and with the convexity required. The holder paid some ten or twelve pounds for the option of selecting a pearl within given limits; and then once more, with the aid of diamond cement and that of a skillful “faker,” this celebrated gem was transformed into a perfect cross. (Taunton, 1903)

When it was examined by one of the authors in 1981 (Scarratt, 1986b), the Southern Cross weighed 99.16 grains (24.79 ct), measuring 37.2 mm long and 18.3 mm wide. The length was similar to that reported by Kunz and Stevenson (1908), while the general shape matched the photo from a 1940s exhibit. Scarratt examined the cluster for both its natural origin as well as the natural formation of the cross. He clearly determined that the pearls were natural, though by that time only two of the joints (A and B in figure 8, right) remained entirely natural.

The microradiograph of the cluster3 (figure 10) clearly shows dark junction lines representing varying degrees of organic material or simply voids between each pearl, indicating the fragility of each junction and going some way toward validating Clark’s statement that the cluster was discovered intact and broke shortly afterward. It may also be noted that the arms of the cross are created by pearls of unequal size and shape, which brings into question Taunton’s “positive statement” that one of the arms was added by a “skillful faker,” for surely that person would have chosen a closer match.

This examination of the Southern Cross also highlights just how fine the growth structures can be in pearls from P. maxima. Figure 10 (center and right) shows magnified microradiographic views of sections from the Southern Cross, which reveal only a very few organic (line) structures, demonstrating how “tight” the crystalline component is for each of the pearls in the cluster. This structural characteristic, while not universal for pearls from P. maxima, may certainly be regarded as common to them.

In Brief

  • Historically, Australia has given the world an untold but significant volume of natural pearls, some of which
    have been quite notable.
  • For several decades, the commercial importance of natural Pinctada maxima pearls has declined as the
    cultured pearl industry has matured.
  • A newly rekindled market for natural pearls has generated interest in natural P. maxima pearls from Australian
  • Microradiographic structures previously used to distinguish between natural P. maxima pearls and accidentally cultured specimens are not necessarily conclusive.

Articles source: Kenneth Scarratt, Peter Bracher, Michael Bracher, Ali Attawi, Ali Safar, Sudarat Saeseaw, Artitaya Homkrajae, and Nicholas Sturman – GEMS & GEMOLOGY, WINTER 2012
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