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Nothing could possibly complete a shipboard romance better than pearls. Our intrepid adventure cruise editor visits the pearling centres of the Southern Hemisphere to bring you this report. Words: Roderick Eime.

Strolling along Dampier Terrace in Broome, you know you’re in the expensive part of town. Lined up along the street adjacent to Roebuck Bay are some of the biggest names in Australian pearling: Linneys, Kailis and Paspaley.

Sprinkled among the big-ticket stores are numerous boutique galleries and retailers that cater to the fascination with Pinctada maxima, the Australian South Sea pearl. Renowned for its size and lustre, the Aussie oyster grows happily in these tidal-fed, nutrient-rich waters, producing some of the finest pearls anywhere in the world.

When buccaneer and explorer William Dampier first sailed along the coast of Western Australia in the pirate ship Cygnet in 1688, he collected botanical specimens and a few shells from the beautiful but otherwise desolate landscape. He returned aboard HMS Roebuck in 1699, but still failed to recognise the rich lode that lay beneath the waves.

When, in the latter part of the 19th century, oysters began to be harvested for their jewel, pearling took off like the mainland gold rushes of decades before. By the 1930s, the prized shell was in danger of extinction, forcing the government to enforce harvesting regulations. Today, visitors can indulge their passion for pearls by perusing the many square metres of cabinet space devoted to the shiny, finished product or immersing themselves in the glamorous history of the tiny bauble that’s cultured and presented in such an unlikely, remote location.

While Broome commands the lion’s share of the pearl business, other areas of Australia and the South Seas bathe in their own rich pearling histories. Thursday Island, in the Torres Strait, followed closely behind Broome and Shark Bay. By 1877, the fledgling Torres Strait pearling industry had 16 operators frantically gathering all the shell they could, usually with indentured Japanese or press-ganged Aboriginal divers. The mortal danger of pearl-diving is evidenced by the many Japanese graves on Thursday Island, and some sources record a fatality rate of 50 per cent.

Vanessa Drotini runs the Tribal Boutique on Thursday Island and is one of the few pearl artists left on the island. Vanessa creates her jewellery using pearls harvested from local pearl-shell leases. Saranealis House is Thursday Island’s largest pearl retailer, founded by the pioneering Saranealis family more than 100 years ago.

Further afield, Fiji’s J. Hunter Pearls of Savusavu introduced the black-lip oyster (Pinctada margaritifera) into the pristine waters of their bay in 1999 and are now harvesting some magnificent chocolate, pistachio and gold-hued pearls that
give the company’s beautiful pieces a special place in the world market.

In 2005 and 2006, J. Hunter Pearls was awarded Exporter of the Year status by the Fiji Islands Trade and Investment Bureau (FTIB) in their category. These jewels are traded as far away as the home of commercial pearling, Japan.

The same species of colourful pearl shell forms the backbone of the developing pearling industry in the Cook Islands, where the fertile waters of lagoons on the northern Cook Islands of Manihiki and Penrhyn provide ideal growing conditions.

The industry started in 1989 on Manihiki and expanded to Tongareva in 1994. Pearls are now one of the Cook Islands’ major sources of export income and are sold both at retail level on the island and online. Cook Islands pearls are essentially identical to Tahitian Black Pearls.

While the Cook Islands and Fiji industries are enjoying some welcome and flattering attention, the home of the black pearl is undoubtedly Tahiti, even though the term is slightly erroneous. Most pearls from French Polynesia derive from the Tuamotu Archipelago, to the north-east of Tahiti. The islands of Fakarava and Rangiroa are the nominal homes of the century-old industry, with the premier producer, Gauguin’s Pearl, established on the latter.

Author’s tip: Choose a shore excursion that visits a pearl farm where you can select your own pearls and create your piece of jewellery on the spot.

How to choose a pearl

Bill Reed, director, Linneys

“There is no such thing as a good-quality, large, lustrous, flawless, cheap pearl. So your first decision should be one of budget, and then choose a pearl or piece of jewellery within that limit. As a natural product, a pearl will almost always have one or more minor imperfections or a slightly irregular shape, but don’t let this become your primary concern, as lustre is your most important factor.”

Parlez Pearl?

Baroque pearl: A pearl with an irregular shape. The most valuable are South Sea and Tahitian pearls.

Coin pearl: A disc-shaped freshwater pearl with an irregular or smooth surface, available in a variety of colours.

Cultured pearl: A pearl created by human intervention. When a ‘seed’ is placed inside the shell, the animal secretes nacre to cover it, thus creating a pearl.

Freshwater pearl: An irregular-shaped pearl naturally formed by a mussel shell. The most highly prized examples are perfectly round and have no surface imperfections.

Lustre: The reflective quality or brilliance of the surface of a pearl. Lustre is related to the thickness and quality of the outer layers of nacre, which capture and reflect light.

Nacre: An iridescent substance forming the lining of the pearl shell and also secreted to coat the pearl seed.

Natural pearl: A pearl formed randomly in nature after debris enters a pearl shell.

Shape: Pearls may be near-round, drop, oval, button, nugget, rice or baroque in shape, but the most valuable pearls are round.

Pearl Excursions

Visiting a pearl farm and seeing technicians at work, seeding and harvesting, gives you a lasting appreciation of the work that goes into producing these alluring little baubles. Here is a quick rundown of tours you can do on your own or from your cruise ship.

BROOME, WESTERN AUSTRALIA

Multi-award-winning Willie Creek Pearls offers a comprehensive pearl farm tour including a boat cruise past the pearl farm operations and a demonstration of how pearls are cultured. Visitors can drive their own 4WDs or join one of the regular tour-bus departures from Broome. Phone ahead on 08 9192 0000 to book. www.williecreekpearls.com.au

SAVUSAVU, VANUA LEVU, FIJI

Just phone ahead on +679 8850 821 for a tour of the pearling facilities at J. Hunter Pearls, on the main street a few hundred metres out of town and open Monday through Friday from 8am to 5pm and on Saturdays from 8am to noon. The store is closed on Sundays and public holidays. www.pearlsfiji.com

TAHITI

Gauguin’s Pearl is located on the atoll of Rangiroa in the Tuamoto group, so you’ll need to be visiting this remote island to join a tour, but lots of people do. Choose your own pearl and fashion jewellery on the spot. www.gauguinspearl.com

COOK ISLANDS

The islands of Manihiki and Tongareva, known for their black pearls, are a tad tricky to get to, but pearl tours are available through operators such as Manihiki Lagoon Villas. On Rarotonga, at the Beachcomber gallery in Avarua, visit pearl carver Tokerau Jim and see an expert craftsman at work. You can also buy his wares at the Nikao store opposite the airport or on the Matavera beachfront, just before Muri beach. www.tokeraujim.com or www.manihikilagoonvillas.co.ck

THURSDAY ISLAND

Full-scale pearling is a relic of the past in the Torres Strait, but Vanessa Drotini at Tribal Boutique can show you superb locally harvested pearls from her store right in the middle of town, along with locally woven bags, baskets, mats and jewellery. Green Hill Fort museum houses many pearling artefacts, and a visit to the Aplin Road Cemetery, with its tiled islander tombs and numerous Japanese graves, is enlightening. Phone 07 4090 3622.