As a piece of natural beauty, I’ve always admired the mother of pearl. When I was travelling through South-east Asia, I bought several pieces of jewellery that incorporated the shell of the oyster. So it was with significant anticipation that I looked forward to experiencing Australia’s most important pearling destination.
Broome, in northern Western Australia, grew in prominence during the 1880’s based on a pearling industry. While today it’s the pearl itself that’s the important find, back then it was the mother of pearl, which was used to make buttons and other decorative items.
There was one distinct difference that set Broome apart from the rest of the world – the oysters living in the waters off the coast grew up to 12 inches in diameter. Named the Pinctada maxima, they are the largest pearl oysters in the world. The shells are magnificent and their considerable size allows the sea creature to produce the biggest pearls worldwide. In fact, the largest pearl in the world was produced by Cygnet Bay Pearls last year and is proudly on display in their Broome shop.
I was keen to learn more about the process of cultivating and harvesting pearls, so I signed up for two tours of working pearl farms – Willie Creek Pearls and Cygnet Bay Pearls.
Here are my thoughts from my Broome pearling experience.
Willie Creek Pearls
With punctual precision the impeccably clean mini-van arrived at Beaches of Broome, my accommodation in Broome, ready to whisk me direct to Willie Creek. The drive takes around 30 minutes along both sealed and unsealed roads. On arrival at Willie Creek, the first thing I noticed was the impossibly blue hues radiating from the water – the concentration of the minerals create an incredible glow, which apart from the aesthetic value, importantly means that the oysters love living in the waters because of the incredible concentration of minerals.
After being led into the showroom, the first official part of the tour was the explanation of the harvesting and cultivation process. Our guide, Steve, eloquently explained how the oysters are collected and how they’re inspired to create the pearls. What made this aspect of the tour real for me, was when Steve took a Pinctada maxima and opened it in front the group. He then called for a volunteer from the audience; a spritely teenager responded, who then to her delight popped the pearl out of its cosy resting place.
The second half of the tour was heading out of sea. The boat took us directly to where oysters are currently producing pearls. Our guide pulled the oysters out of the sea and showed us how important it was to clean their shells free of barnacles and bacteria. We then glided around the waterway on the lookout for the wildlife that call the region home. A salty apparently lives in the Creek but he decided not to greet us.
Cygnet Bay Pearls
Cygnet Bay is located around 200 kilometres from Broome on the Dampier Peninsula near the iconic Cape Leveque. Rather than driving up on unsealed roads, I decided to combine my Cygnet Bay Pearling experience with a scenic flight over the region and in particular the Horizontal Waterfalls. I signed up with Kimberley Aviation, a professional outfit that offers numerous scenic flight options. Needless to say, the sight of the natural phenomena of the Horizontal Waterfalls and the nearby Buccaneer Islands was mesmerising.
But I was in search of pearls… so the plane touched down on a red earth runway and we were met by a representative from Cygnet Bay Pearls. It was really interesting to hear the differences between the way the two companies cultivate their pearls and also compare the similarities. For example the two companies use different substances that irritate the oysters, compelling the marine animal to produce the nacre secreting mantle tissue that hardens into a pearl.
The Cygnet Bay tour also included a boat trip out onto the ocean that took the group out to where the oysters live below. From the boat, we also saw the ships dedicated to cleaning and x-raying the creatures and of course we were taken on a whip around the staggering beautiful surroundings.
Purchasing the Perfect Pearl
Both outfits explained how to grade a pearl and how it’s valued – a most important aspect for potential buyers. After all, having undertaken a tour to learn about how pearls are cultured, the implication is that with this knowledge, you’d be interested in purchasing a souvenir as a memento. Both Willie Creek and Cygnet Bay have showrooms at the tour location and also in town. I found the close proximity of all the shops in Broome meant that I could easily compare all the jewellery on offer – and being the generous guy I am, I bought mother of pearl pendants for my colleagues at work.
For your next holiday to Broome, a friendly Escape Travel consultant can also arrange a tour of a working Pearl Farm.