Queensland South Sea Pearls
history of pearl cultivation in australia
Australia is the world’s major producer of white South Sea pearls, for during the 1998 season the tropical waters off northern Australia yielded ~ 60 per cent of total world production of these much desired and very valuable bead-nucleated cultured pearls.

White South Sea pearls are large (>10 mm diameter) rounded, lustrous, white, silvery, cream, or golden pearls that are cultivated by man in the gold- and silver-lipped pearl oyster (Pinctada maxima) that is indigenous to the off-shore waters of northern Australia. Other white South Sea pearls produced by the Australian pearling industry include ‘accidental’ whole baroque keshi pearls, and cultured bead nucleated half pearls that are commonly termed mabés.

The white South Sea pearl is a comparative newcomer to Australia’s pearling industry, for the history of this primary industry stretches back for well over a century to the time when Australia was one of the major supplier of natural pearls to European and American markets.

The Industry

Australia’s pearl culturing industry commenced in 1965 when Pearls Proprietary Ltd established a pearl culture farm at Kuri Bay, some 420 km north of Broome, Western Australia

By 1963 this farm was producing 60 per cent of the world’s finest white South Sea pearls. Presently, the high quality product from farms operating in Western Australia (centred on Broome), and in the Northern Territory (around the Coburg Peninsula and in Darwin and Bynoe Harbours) dominate the burgeoning Australian white cultured pearl industry.

A few Queensland-based pearl cultivators, who operate in Torres Strait at several locations down the eastern seaboard of Cape York as far south as Cooktown, are presently minor contributors to Australia’s overall production of white South Sea pearls.

Presently, the legal quota of oysters that can be harvested for implantation in Western Australia includes 575,000 wild oysters from off shore beds (now reduced to 500,000) and 350,000 hatchery-reared oysters (the majority of which are not yet in production). Because areas suitable for pearl cultivation are limited, new leases are difficult to obtain, and the annual quote of wild oysters is unlikely to increase, quality rather than quantity of Australian white South Sea pearls should increase over the next few years.

Most Australian pearl cultivators believe that careful management of natural oyster stocks is essential to ensure that these remain self-sustaining at present levels of annual harvesting. They express continuing concerns that the costs, risks and quality of pearls obtained by implanting hatchery-reared oysters are not favourable. Thus, full use of this resource is not expected for some years.

In Australia, the Darwin-based Paspaley group is the major producer of white South Sea pearls. This vertically structured cultivator produces more than fifty per cent of Australia’s total crop of white South Sea pearls.
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