Pearls are rarities of nature and the world’s sole aquatic gems. They are produced through biological rather than the geophysical processes of diamonds and other minerals.

Though people have tried to grow these natural phenomena for thousands of years, spherical pearls were not cultivated until the early twentieth century, on Japanese Akoya pearl farms.

Later, the technique spread to Australia and across the world. As the pearlshell market slowly waned, determined Australian pearlers forged a new era, producing cultivated pearls for high-fashion jewellery.

Pearl Hamaguchi, Pearl farmer:

“My husband graduated from being a diver, because when he came out from Japan, he went to a maritime college after senior high school, so he had a master’s degree. So he switched over from being a diver to a ship captain on the pearlshell transport boat. But husband was made redundant, so he decided, ‘I’d like to try my hand at my own little pearl farm. Just do it to see if I can.’ I thought, “Oh, my God.” You know, my husband is the first Japanese that they granted a pearling license to.

So we had four sons working. My role in the family business, well, I was the accountant, I was the book keeper, I was the pay master, public relations officer, I was the secretary, I was the everything. So I was embarrassed because it was so successful.”

Steve Arrow, Pearl farmer:

“I think that we were the first of the pearl farms to produce a high lustre, high colour, large size harvest from sub-surface open-water, longline system pearl farming, and the difference in these pearls is like day and night. Because we had our own in-house technicians; we had our own research and development processes, and we were a team. And we could see things, and we wanted to have a go at it, and we discussed it, and we had a crack at it, you know, and we had some brilliant outcomes. And that’s the whole thing about being a small family-based pearl farm is that we could, you know, have an element of flamboyancy. We had the freedom in some ways to do things that were, you know, I think the archeologists refer to it as doxa, you know, a new paradigm of operation. A completely new way to see the world, and or to see the world as a pearl farm.”

James Brown, Pearl farmer:

“So the transition from the old industry to the new industry is seen in our family when we transitioned from Sunday Island to Cygnet Bay. It’s a radical difference, and I think its very important for people to understand that these are two extremely different industries. Whilst its all called the Australian pearling industry, one is really just harvesting a natural resource, the other one is having to understand the environment to a whole new level so that not only you can keep this animal alive, but make it thrive and safe from cyclones, predators, disease, whilst it slowly grows a precious gem in it.

And that’s the reason why my grandfather moved from Sunday Island to Cygnet Bay, because Cygnet Bay has perfect shallow reefs, which were ideal for farming shell. And King Sound obviously has pearling beds, not only could we fish shell on, but in future we could use for pearl farming as well.”

Olando Koza ‘Cossack’ Tamwoy, Torres Strait islander pearl farm worker:

“I’m from Torres Strait. An island out from Thursday Island called Badu. Yeah, back home we had our own boats. Mum’s brothers, six of them had luggers of their own. They were called the Nona fleet. Mum’s older brother, he was the headman for them. Then after he went, his sons took over. The red eye ones, yeah. And my grandfather, he had two boats. He had his own emblem. He had a green eye. Each boat had their own colours.

Yeah, we had farms in Friday Island, and Packe Island and an island next to Badu, Moa Island, they had a farm there too.

After the incident in 1970 off Wednesday Island, a big oil tanker ran aground, and all the oil spilled everywhere in Torres Strait and just about killed all the shell and all the pearling industry died down, and everybody went looking for a job everywhere.

At Kuri Bay, they made us work like 8 to 9 hours a day. Yeah, shell cleaning. A few blokes, older ones, their job was making baskets. When the boats came we unloaded the shells from Eighty Mile. Some others made new rafts. Some others ones repaired rafts. All of us we made songs about the boats and about the work, fishing at night.”

Jasmyn Cook, Pearl seeder:

“Technique is very important with seeding. There’s a certain way you put it in with the bead. It has to sit very precisely for it to actually break down properly and coat the bead properly. Put it upside down it won’t work or you could have funny looking pearl. There’s particular ways things have to be done. Because your tools are so small and what you’re working with is so small. It’s almost like microsurgery. You’ve got a very small window to see through. Very small space to work in, and you definitely need a steady hand.

The quicker you can do the operation, the better. Each oyster I operated on reacted differently. Some will be very tense. Some will be relaxed and I would have to adjust myself to the oyster how they would take me touching it. Obviously because something foreign is about to come into their body so they try to close up, and then you have some that don’t mind it. They’re just relaxed and happy to chill there until they get back in the water.

I always had earphones in and I found singing to them helped. A bit like plants. I tried to give them a fair amount of Bob Marley, a bit of love.”