Style: Port of Pearls

  • Jeremy Hart

Parked beside the cream clapboard colonial building that houses Linney’s pearl emporium in Broome, Australia, proprietor Bill Reed’s Mercedes M-Class stands out from the array of dented Land Rovers on Canarvon Street like a tuxedo in a sea of blue jeans. Reed is the godfather of Broome’s modern pearl industry. With hair as white as the sand on Broome’s pristine 22-kilometer-long Cable Beach and a face burnished red as the Australian interior, he epitomizes the new generation of wealth that resides on this narrow coastal band perched closer to Singapore than Sydney.

“Hang on, I’ve got to get something,” he calls out as he shifts around to the back of his Mercedes. He has a soft, storyteller Australian accent. It is a voice you could listen to for hours under the burning tropical sun on the deck of a pitching lugger, the boat used for harvesting pearls. Reed opens the trunk and fishes out a couple of nondescript sacks that are tied at the neck like medieval moneybags. “Look at these,” he whispers, dipping his hands gleefully into one of the sacks. When Reed’s blotchy hands emerge, they overflow with lustrous black pearls. “There’s a new Mercedes right here in my hands. Beautiful, aren’t they?”

While cultured pearls are farmed throughout the South Seas from Indonesia to Tahiti, Australian South Sea pearls are widely regarded as the finest in the world. One theory attributes the quality to the water temperature off Broome, which varies as much as 12 degrees Celsius, while annual sea temperatures in Tahiti and Indonesia fluctuate only 4 or 5 degrees. When water temperature is colder, oyster growth, and therefore pearl growth, slows, resulting in pearls with a finer crystalline structure and increased luminosity.

Half of the world’s pearl production (920,000 pearls a year) is Australian, and Broome, also known as the Port of Pearls, is the cultured pearl capital of the world. Broome’s original pearl industry dates to the mid-19th century, when mother-of-pearl was in massive demand for shirt buttons from London’s Jermyn Street to Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. The precious shell was harvested from natural oysters that were abundant in the waters of Broome. The industry boomed until the advent of the nylon button in the 1940s, which almost destroyed Broome and its pearling industry. World War II delivered another economic blow. But, as demand for gem pearls increased following the war, farming of cultured pearls (which are seeded by man in natural oyster shells) saved Broome from becoming a ghost town.

Through the booms and busts over the decades, Broome has managed to retain its original frontier character. Although the tumbleweeds are missing and there are no men in chaps packing pistols in their holsters, the sun-bleached and cyclone-blown port resembles an American Wild West gold rush town. Lined by rusting corrugated-iron verandas, Canarvon Street has an oddball assortment of stores with swinging, slatted wooden doors.

Despite its rustic appearance, Broome is currently on a decades-long roll thanks to Reed and Lord Alistair McAlpine, the British construction millionaire who made Australia his second home and business base. One conversation between McAlpine and Prince Charles was all it took to put Broome back on the map in the early 1980s.

As local legend goes, not long after Prince Charles and Princess Diana were engaged, Lord McAlpine showed the Prince a string of pearls from Broome. “He told him, ‘Get a string of these around your bird,’ ” reports Reed with his charming Aussie wit. “It was one of the finest strands ever made—worth about $107,000 at the time. I don’t know where it is now, sadly, but it would be worth millions.”

Princess Diana wore her Broome pearls everywhere, and as with her haute couture, the world followed her lead. In Broome, it brought a flood of orders. “We had a steady industry in Broome since the 19th century when pearling first began here,” says Reed. “But the Diana thing kick-started the boom that we have had for the last 20 years.”

McAlpine is credited with saving many of Broome’s historic buildings, including Sun Pictures outdoor movie theater, establishing the luxurious Cable Beach Inter-Continental Resort, and persuading the Western Australia state government to improve roads and the town’s airport. The pearl trade, how-ever, was his biggest beneficiary. “He persuaded the top shops like Tiffany’s to stock bigger pearls,” says Reed. “Alistair raised the whole game.”

Today, pearling is a year-round industry in Broome rather than a nine-month affair. Residents walk the streets toting tatty plastic bags that could just as easily contain the week’s laundry as a million dollars’ worth of the ocean’s most precious product.

But such remarkable treasures have come at a steep human cost, a point that is underscored as Reed tours Broome’s historic and sobering cemetery. Many of those who died here were immigrants from Japan, Malaysia, and neighboring Indonesia. In the 1850s, during the early days of the pearling industry, free divers, mainly Aboriginal and some Asian women, would slip over the edge of the pearl luggers at low tide and bring up as many tons of shells as they could. Over time, they had to dive deeper and deeper to find the shells. “That’s when the problems started,” says Reed as he moves slowly among the gravestones inscribed with Japanese and Chinese script. “They suffered from the bends a lot, and many died.” As a result, free diving was banned in 1871. However, one of the deadliest periods on record was from 1887 to 1889 (during the changeover to hard hat diving), when 440 lives were lost in the quest for pearls.

The Asian divers remained in Broome, adapting their skills with advancing technology. When hard hat diving (named for those iconic diving uniforms consisting of copper bell helmets, one-piece suits, and lead boots) emerged in the 1880s, Broome’s 3,000 Japanese immigrants were at the forefront of the pearling revolution. The “hard hatters” became local heroes, especially those Japanese divers who left their families, some forever, to make their fortunes in Broome.

“I could never leave Broome,” says Capt. Hamaguchi, who left Osaka
45 years ago to work as a seaman on the run from Broome to Japan. He told his mother he would stay only three years, but he never returned. Hamaguchi is a living legend in Broome and one of the town’s last hard hat divers.

“I arrived in Broome in June—the 18th, I think, 1955,” he recalls. He sits engulfed by a comfy armchair on a bare wood floor polished as proudly as his old brass helmet. “Once I got here I was offered a job diving, but I had never dived before. I knew some divers were making $5,000 a month. You can see why it was tempting.”

For the promise of such wages, Hamaguchi endured 12-hour days and weekly bouts with mild cases of the bends. “Once I got the bends bad, but we weren’t allowed to be sick,” he says.

Richard “Salty Dog” Baillieu, another of Broome’s hardy brethren of divers, was one of the few hard hatters to change over to scuba diving in the 1970s. Baillieu worked 14 days at a time without any breaks, living in squalid, cramped conditions on leaky pearl luggers. The compensation for such arduous work was high: In the 1980s, he netted $60,000 for a six-month working year. But there were dangers; he had the bends more often than he could count.

“I was lucky, though,” he says, his weather-beaten face wincing at the memories of hard hat diving under the enormous pressure of 240-foot depths. “Our air had to be forced down to us. If the air hose broke, the pressure was enough to squeeze a man’s body right up into his helmet so only his legs were sticking out. It was danger money.”

Of course, there is more to the pearling game than money. Pearl divers are like surfers waiting for the ultimate wave: They are always hoping to find that perfect pearl. Hamaguchi twice discovered pearling nirvana when he found a couple of 20-millimeter specimens. Harvesting a pearl that size is like discovering a big gold nugget, a 1-in-140,000 find worth around $215,000.

The rewards for pearl diving are still high, with average wages hovering around $48,000 a year, and the work is still hard. Divers spend weeks out on the luggers during the harvesting season that lasts from June through September, laboring in crocodile- and shark-infested waters and turbulent 36-foot tides.

Today, the Australian pearling industry generates estimated annual revenues of $107 million, but pearling in northwestern Australia is threatened from within—a victim of its own success. For every existing pearl producer on the coast for 500 miles on either side of Broome, a potential one is waiting to be awarded the rights to farm. In northwestern Australia, those who want to break into the industry accuse the existing 16 producers of protectionism, and even of hoarding mountains of pearls to inflate prices. Under pressure from the potential new pearl farmers, the Western Australia government is considering legislation that will allow a limited number of new pearl hatcheries to open beginning in 2005.

The Pearl Producers Association of Australia supports the government decision to hold the line on new operations, claiming that deregulation would threaten the burgeoning industry and its escalating profits. “Overproduction could be disastrous,” adds Reed, who fears duplicating the overproduction that devalued the pearl industry in Japan in 1965 and, more recently, in Tahiti. “The government’s quota system works for supply and demand. This is a fragile industry. Overfarming will destroy the pearl ecology around here and drive down prices.”

Even if pearling did collapse in Broome, the town would surely survive. Although Lord McAlpine has left Broome to return to his native England, his legacy is everywhere: Cable Beach Inter-Continental Resort, the pearl boutiques, the preserved historic buildings. But whatever McAlpine did for Broome, he did not homogenize it. It is still on Australia’s wild northwest frontier. In the dry winter months, it is a heavenly place. In the oppressive tropical wet season, it is hellish. “Broome is still for characters,” says Reed. “But to be truly welcomed, you have to be here for a full ‘wet’—the humid and hot rainy season when it’s like living in a sauna.”

An adventurous, rugged mentality still exists here to be sure, but there are modern concessions to comfort, with daily flights in and out, and some 150 varieties of yogurt offered in the shops. The town has developed agriculture, farming cotton and tropical fruits, and it has cultivated additional industries such as fishing and information technology. “Today, if the pearl industry died,” says Reed, “Broome would no longer die with it.” 

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