Australian South Sea pearls are produced by the largest and rarest of all pearl oysters – the Pinctada maxima. This species is the most valuable of all oysters due to the superb quality of its mother-of-pearl, highly valued in its own right.
Wild Pinctada maxima oysters live in sparsely populated beds in isolated tropical regions of the Indian and Paci c Oceans. In the mid-19th century, the world’s richest beds of Pnctada maxima oysters were discovered near Broome in Western Australia. These pearling grounds soon became the world’s most important source of mother-of-pearl. During the next century, they were also the source of many of the most important natural pearls ever discovered.
Pinctada maxima oysters have been overfishing in much of their natural habitat. Australia is the last place in the world where wild Pinctada maxima pearl oysters still exist in sufficient numbers to be used for pearl cultivation.
The Australian Government protects and manages the pearl oyster shery with strict quotas and a range of legislation enforcing high standards of social and environmental responsibility in the pearling industry.
As a result of the government’s strict regulation and the good fortune of an isolated and pristine environment, Australia’s pearl beds are healthier today than they have been for more than a century.
Unlike most other pearl-producing molluscs, the Australian Pinctada maxima oyster produces only one cultured pearl every two to three years.
As a testament to their rarity, Australian cultured South Sea pearls account for a mere 0.1% of total global pearl production.
Despite the relatively small quantity of cultured pearls produced in Australia, their superb quality means that they account for an estimated 21% of the total value of cultured pearls produced in the world each year.
Over the course of fifty years, Australian pearlers have unlocked the secret of producing superior pearls that do not require processing or enhancement to reveal their beauty.
Culturing South Sea pearls begins with the search for the prized Pinctada maxima pearl oyster. Australia is in the fortunate and unique position of having rich wild pearl beds that allow the majority of oysters used for pearl cultivation to be collected from the wild, rather than grown in hatcheries.
Teams of divers search the sea floor at depths of up to 35m
to collect the wild oysters by hand. This is an environmentally friendly form of fishing resulting in no wasteful by-catch or damage to the ocean floor.
In accordance with Australian government regulations, only a specific number of wild oysters of the appropriate size are collected, ensuring the long-term sustainability of the pearl fishery.
The selected oysters are collected at an area of the seabed known as a ‘nursery’ to await the seeding operation. On very rare occasions a wild oyster already holds one of nature’s most prized gems – a natural pearl.
The seeding process is a meticulous and highly specialised operation.
On board state-of-the-art pearling vessels, the Pinctada maxima oysters are held in tanks of circulating seawater. A nucleus (in this case a small polished sphere of Mississippi freshwater clam shell) is implanted into each oyster by a skilled technician.
Over time, a pearl forms as the oyster surrounds the nucleus with thousands of layers of nacre. Australian South Sea pearls are husbanded for at least two years to ensure the growth of thick layers of nacre that are necessary to give a pearl radiant natural lustre.
Maintaining the oyster in prime health is the key to producing pearls of high quality. This would be impossible but for the location of the pearl farms in the unpolluted waters of north-western Australia, remote from centres of population.
For the duration of the husbandry period, each oyster is carefully cleaned every
few weeks to remove marine growth that would otherwise compromise its health.
When harvest time arrives the oysters are raised from the ocean and transported to the harvest vessel. There, technicians delicately open the oyster and remove its creation. Only then is the quality of the pearl revealed. Oysters that produce a pearl of exceptional quality may be seeded again for a further harvest.
5. PEARL GRADING
Grading is an exacting and time-consuming process carried out by experts with years of experience. The range of combinations of size, colour, lustre, shape and skin quality is vast. Without this stringent grading process, it would be impossible to ensure consistency when pearls are matched for pairs and strands.
THE FIVE VIRTUES
This most wondrous of gems emerge from the living oyster radiant with natural beauty. Unlike other gems, pearls require no cutting before being set into jewellery.
As a product of Nature, pearls occur in an infinite combination of shapes, colours and sizes making each pearl unique. After the harvest, each pearl is meticulously graded according to the following Five Virtues: Lustre | Complexion | Shape | Colour | Size.
Lustre is the most important characteristic of a pearl. Of all precious gems, only pearls have lustre and it is this that gives pearls their singular beauty.
A pearl consists of countless layers of pearlescent organic material known as ‘nacre’. Lustre arises from the interaction of light with these layers of nacre.
The lustre of Australian South Sea pearls is attributable to the superlative quality and thickness of the nacre produced by the wild Pinctada maxima oyster. Together, these factors result in the lustre of incomparable radiance and iridescence.
A pearl with deep and radiant natural lustre is desirable and valuable whatever its shape, colour or size and despite any surface imperfections. Natural lustre is everlasting and should not be confused with the superficial metallic shine of treated pearls that may diminish over time.
A pearl with a flawless surface is exceptionally rare. A pearl’s quality is influenced by the number and size of imperfections and their degree of visibility. Clear, y noticeable imperfections compromise a pearl’s allure and value.
A pearl’s shape does not affect its quality. However, the demand for particular shapes does have a bearing on value. Round, teardrop, oval and button shapes are in especially high demand.
Some other shapes, such as circlé and baroque, are no less beautiful and have an appealing individuality. A circlé pearl features one or more grooved rings around the pearl. Baroque pearls are irregular in shape. These organic, free-form shapes can be very beautiful and lend themselves to exciting and creative jewellery designs.
Keshi pearls are in a category of their own. They are composed of pure pearl nacre and are generally baroque in shape. The term ‘keshi’ literally means ‘poppy-seed’ in Japanese and refers to the typically small size of these pearls. These beautiful gems account for less than one percent of the annual harvest.
Australian South Sea pearls are available in a wide array of natural colours mirroring the overtones of the Pinctada maxima shell in which they form.
Colour is a personal choice but the popularity of a particular hue can influence a pearl’s value. Australian South Sea pearls are predominantly white or silver and may have multi-hued overtones including pink, blue and green. ese overtones, when they are present, are known as ‘orient’.
RANGING FROM 8MM - 20MM
Australian South Sea pearls are the largest of all pearls, typically ranging from 11 to 16mm in diameter. Larger sizes up to 20mm and beyond are occasionally found and such pearls are highly prized.