For more than a century, the pearling industry of Australia has been a primary economic force. Although the industry began before European settlements were founded, since the 1850s, it has included more than just harvested pearls.
The Australian pearling industry includes shell artists, infrastructure support, and numerous support industries.
Important Australian Pearling Industry Statistics
#1. The Australian Pearling industry is the second-highest grossing fishing industry in Western Australia, with a net value of about $64 million. Only fishing for rock lobsters is more valuable. (Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development)
#2. Western Australia has the only primary wild stock resource for pearl oysters in the world today. (Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development)
#3. Oysters are hand-picked from the primary fishing grounds for the pearling industry, which are located near Broome. (Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development)
#4. To ensure that the forming pearls in the oysters are round, divers must turn them regularly for 90 days. Then they are moved into farm waters and continue to grow on lines that float. (Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development)
#5. Oysters may require several seedings to produce the largest pearls possible. (Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development)
#6. It may take over 24 months for a pearl to grow to the size and quality that is desired by the global jewelry industry. (Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development)
#7. Although there used to be dozens of pearl farms operating in the 2000s, as of 2015, there were just three companies operating the Australian pearling industry. (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
#8. Highly productive oysters can produce 3 or 4 gem-quality pearls from the same shell. (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
#9. Pearl meat is also part of the industry, which retails for about $100 per kilo mark. (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
#10. The first pearls and their shells were located in Nickol Bay in 1861 by European settlers. Up to 6 tons of pearl shell per day could be collected from beaches and river banks in the first days of the colonization period. (Broome Staircase Designs)
#11. Better pearls and shells could be collected in 1881 when settlers began using diving equipment to harvest the materials. (Broome Staircase Designs)
#12. Diving for materials has always been one of the most dangerous aspects of the Australian pearling industry. The death of Jarrod Hampton, a diver employed by Paspaley, resulted in a $60,000 fine for the 2012 incident because of a failure to provide a safe working environment. (Australian Broadcasting Company)
#13. The total Australian pearling industry is believed to have a value of over $200 million annually. (The West Australian)
#14. When the jewelry markets were competitive, divers could earn $4.50 per shell collected. In 2011, pearling operators had some of their most experienced divers quit because they refused to raise the price per shell from $3.50 – a recession-era pricing model. (The West Australian)
#15. By 1914, Broome was supplying about 80% of the world’s pearl shell. At the time, more than 3,500 people were involved in the industry and there were 400 luggers. During this peak era, the collected pearl shells were valued at 400 pounds per ton. (Broome Staircase Designs)
#16. By 1973, the South Sea pearls that were harvested from Kuri Bay accounted for about 60% of the global large pearl industry. (Broome Staircase Design)
#17. Part of the initial growth experienced in the Australian pearl industry came through indentured Malay labor. In 1874, there were 225 people involved in pearl shell collection through industrial labor. In 1875, there were 989 people involved. In 1876, the figure dropped to just 24 people. (Department of Communications, Information Technology, and the Arts)
#18. Stress is one of the primary causes of having a pearl obtain a blemish. To counter this issue, the pearling industry does their best to keep pearls as healthy as possible. Part of the farming process includes nutrient flushing procedures and regular parasite removal. (Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development)
#19. A small pea-crab lives inside of every healthy oyster, sharing the debris and potentially cleaning it. Without this relationship, the quality of the pearls tends to suffer. (Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development)
#20. The three primary operators in the pearling industry work with approximately 20 cultured pearl farms. In total, about 1,000 people are estimated to be employed by the Australian pearling industry each year. (Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development)
#21. Aboriginal groups in Australia are believed to be one of the first peoples to value the beauty and intrigue of pearl shells. The oldest evidence of pearl shell collection is believed to be 22,000 years old and was discovered within a rock shelter in West Kimberley. (Western Australian Museum)
#22. Evidence of the first pearling fisheries dates to 7,500 years ago from practices that developed in the United Arab Emirates. Some of these practices were employed by the first divers and harvesters of pearl shell in the Australian pearling industry. (Western Australian Museum)
#23. In 1918, Beagle Bay saw the Sacred Heart Church first open. Pearl shell features throughout the church, with mother of pearl adorning the primary altar. More than 60,000 limestone bricks and thousands of live shells, collected from tidal reefs, are included with the religious designs, making it a one-of-a-kind religious structure. (Western Australian Museum)
#24. South Sea pearls produced by the Australian pearling industry are typically white or cream in color, with silver overtones. These should not be confused with the South Sea pearls that are golden in color, which are typically developed in the waters around the Philippines. (The Pearl Source)
#25. White South Sea pearls from Australia can be as small as 3mm, but grow to sizes of 9.5mm. A pearl that is below 7mm from the industry is generally considered to be small in size. (The Pearl Source)
#26. The most prized pearls that come from the Australian pearling industry are 7mm to 8mm in size as these tend to fit nicely as a necklace or bracelet without being uncomfortable or bulky. (The Pearl Source)
Australian Pearling Industry Trends and Analysis
The biggest issues that have faced the Australian pearling industry are economic downturns and shell quality. Pearling professionals have discovered that shell growth is slower than in past years and it may take longer to develop gem-quality results. These adjustments should stabilize the industry to provide the necessary materials for continued growth.
As for the economics of the pearling industry, much of it will depend on global trends for GDP growth. The economic downturn period of 2007-2009, sometimes referred to as the “Great Recession,” stopped many small operators within the industry. The companies that have survived these circumstances are in a position to return it to its former glory.