Australian south sea pearls

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Paspaley: Pearling Pioneer

2 April 2012

CJNA April

Paspaley: Pearling pioneer
How and why the humble oyster produces pearls is a mystery to most. This natural phenomenon is something that Paspaley, a pearling pioneer and a brand synonymous with the exquisite Australian South Sea pearl, has come to understand through more than 75 years of dedication to the industry.
From humble origins the Paspaley brand is today as illustrious as the gems it cultivates. In 1919, its founder, Nicholas Paspaley Senior MBE, fled with his family from the war in their native Greece and sought refuge on the remote northern coast of Australia, where rich pearl beds teemed with life.
On arriving they discovered that diving for natural pearls and Mother-of-Pearl for button manufacturing was one of the few available industries in that isolated region. It was in this trade that the young Paspaley formed the foundation of a company that would later shape the pearling industry.
In the early 1930s, at age 18, Nicholas was at the helm of his first lugger, diving for the magnificent Australian South Sea pearl oysters that supplied the majority of the world’s button-making industry. Over-fishing and the invention of plastic buttons resulted in the demise of the Mother-of-Pearl industry following the Second World War.  As demand for the material diminished, Paspaley set his sights on culturing pearls of the same size and quality as the incredible natural South Sea pearls that he had occasionally discovered as a Mother-of-Pearl fisherman; cultured pearls of a size and quality never before seen.
The perfect environment
The unspoilt oceans off the northern Australian coast are home to the world’s richest beds of the largest and rarest species of pearl oyster ­– the giant Pinctada maxima. Very occasionally, the South Sea pearl oysters yield a natural pearl, but the overwhelming majority of these are very small or of indifferent quality.
One in a hundred oysters might produce a pearl and only a small percentage of these pearls might be truly exquisite. Due to their rarity and beauty, Australian South Sea pearls have long had a reputation as the most prized of all pearls.
Australian South Sea pearl farming
Aware of the success of the cultured Akoya pearl industry in Japan, Paspaley brought the same techniques to Australia and began adapting them to the Australian South Sea pearl oyster and its environment. Slowly and methodically, innovative techniques for culturing pearls were developed. Many breakthroughs only came about after years of observation and trial and error.
Over the past 75 years, the company – led by Nicholas Senior, and later by his son Nick Paspaley Jr AC, ­– has nurtured its partnership with nature and capitalised on the gift of the region’s invaluable resources. The uncompromising way in which Nick Jr invested in the integrity and product quality is reflected in the company’s unparalleled levels of operational sophistication.
The astonishing journey begins with a rare oyster plucked from the wild. Each oyster is handled with care and precision, and nurtured on the company’s pearl farms during the years that it takes for a pearl to form. The peal farms are located in the remote areas that are the oysters’ natural habitat. The nutrients present in these pristine waters nourish the oysters, encouraging the formation of pearls of superlative quality and beauty.
Paspaley’s expert farming staff act as the guardians of these gems, painstakingly cleaning and caring for each oyster for as long as nine years during which time each oyster will produce no more than three cultured pearls. By contrast, single Chinese Freshwater mussel may produce more than 100 pearls at a time.
Pearl differentiation
Three species of the Pinctada oyster family produce the vast majority of oceanic pearls. They are the South Sea pearl oyster (Pinctadamaxima), the Tahitian black pearl oyster (Pinctada margaritifera) and the Japanese Akoya pearl oyster (Pinctada martensii).
As the result of a government regulated quota system and the good fortune of an isolated and pristine environment, Australia now has the world’s last significant beds of wild South Sea pearl oysters. These conservation measures have resulted in pearl beds that are healthier than they have been for more than a century.
The great majority of Paspaley's cultured pearl production is still derived from wild oysters fished from the pearling grounds of Western Australia. Paspaley employs 40 professional pearl divers to fish its annual wild shell quota and is the last company in the world to use mainly wild oysters for South Sea pearl production. All other South Sea pearl producing regions rely solely on hatchery-grown oysters.
A pearl’s nacre closely resembles the shell of the mollusc from which it came. Pinctada maxima oysters are renowned for the thick, fine and lustrous mother-of-pearl that make them the most desirable and valuable for use as inlay and for fine quality button making. Unsurprisingly, the pearls they produce are also of unsurpassed quality and value. Unlike most freshwater pearls which have little natural lustre and require processing and dying before being suitable for jewellery, the majority of Australian South Sea pearls are ready to be set into fine jewellery from the moment they emerge from the oyster.
Paspaley continues to set the benchmark of the pearl industry by continuing to produce the finest pearls in the world.
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