Introduction

Many cultures of the world share a sense of mystery and fascination with pearlshell and pearls as objects of desire, wealth, magic and power.

In Asia, Europe, Africa, the Americas and Oceania, mother of pearl has featured as a prestige material for thousands of years. In many cultures it continues to do so today.

The iridescence of mother of pearl is beguiling, but more significant is the widelyheld belief in a link between lustre and rainbows, rain, and water, the essence of life.

Jacky Dedelot, Button maker:

(translation by Patrick Amadieu)

“I worked with my father who opened a small family enterprise for the fabrication of the making of buttons, of pearl buttons, white and grey. Mother of pearl from Trochus.

The work was my universe. I used to play climbing on the shell mounds piles by the door of the workshop.

Mother of pearl, it is that there is little yellow, because of the crust of the nacre, it is always yellow.

I talked with the gentlemen who has worked with it and was interested in the Broome’s nacre, differentiated from Broome at this level, that is, there is much more white than yellow. It is formidable because you were straight in, and yellow buttons were worth nothing. The mother of pearl from Broome is indeed superb. It is a beautiful nacre. When it comes to the white nacre, Broome comes first. Broome is ahead of it all.”

George Major, Pearly King:

“I’m the Pearly King of Peckam, which is in South London. My title is a Pearly King. I inherited it from my mother’s side of the family. When you’re born into it, you’re proud of it, and that pride takes you to your death.

Pearly King and Queens, they started from the costermongers, which is what people know as market traders, in London. It was set in the early 1700’s that a Coster King was first elected into supporting the poor, sick and needy. The first one was Samuel King, and they just had a flash of pearl buttons, they were smoke pearl buttons then, and it sewn on the jacket, trousers and few on the hat. That was the Coster King.

Then, in 1850 we converted from the Coster King to the Pearly King, where you covered the whole suit with mother of pearl buttons. And they came from a shell which is from around the coast, the Australian coast and the Japanese coast. Pearl buttons, because when you’re walking down the road, especially as its getting a bit dark, they glitter and they’re shiny so that people can see you easily so you can raise bees and honey, which is money, to raise for charity. We’re all about helping the poor sick and needy and them shells help us do it.”

Pinctada

Peter Hunter Rooboo, Bardi elder:

“They used to go to dry shelling over there. And the reefs used to get dry. They used to get on the reefs and start dry shelling, filling their bags. That’s Jooloom, that island. They’ve got pearlshell along there. For the reef, this one here and there’s Bowooloon, and there’s Boolnginy and Imbalgoon down the reef, with all Bardi names. They used to go up towards Strickland Bay way. And the Graveyard there’s Japanese graves and Asian people’s graves there, yeah, on that island. Very strong tide from there. A tide rip is you’ll see some coming through when the tide’s coming in and starts to make lots of whirlpool. Its really ripping through the rocks. Straight on up that point, from Jooloom, there’s a big drop there, a little bit of valley on the reef, and the divers couldn’t dive down there. They used to jump over to the other side, get dragged with the lugger. Some of them went down there. They were game. They got the bends.”

James Brown, Pearl farmer:

“Pearlshell beds are quite happy to grow in quite tight concentrations, and Pinctada maxima will do that again. So, most of the Eighty Mile Beach is generally fairly flat and the reef sections that are there are not too tall. There’s little crevices, but not much, and then there’re lots of moving sands, undulating sandy areas, and amongst that you get a range of habitat, but then these pearls or pearlshell oysters will grow in patches. The industry or the divers and the dive teams will call them different types of patches. You’ve got potato bottom, whip bottom, sponge bottom. These names describe the different types of habitat that the shell co exist with. Small sponges and ascidians growing on hard bottom, quite often with these tall hydrozoan whips, and then the Pinctada maxima will just be nestled in amongst all that.”

Roy Wiggan Bagayi, Bardi elder:

“Diving, its a paradise. I’ve never seen anything like it down the bottom of the sea. Where there’s hundred fathom, pearlshell, coral. Beautiful. It’s paradise.”