From Buttons to Jewellery: Birth of South Sea cultured pearl industry in Australia
Australian National University
In recent years, South Sea pearls with their renowned lustre and size, have been regarded as one of the cultural icons for Australia as some prominent female representatives wear them for important occasions in the same way as Akubra hats for men. Cultured South Sea pearl production in Australia started in a remote bay in the Kimberley region about sixty years ago and has developed into a sizable industry in northern Australia. In the meantime, the pearl-shelling industry declined rapidly in the 1950s with the onset of plastic buttons.
This paper explores how the cultured pearl industry began in Australia against a backdrop of political and economic change in post-Pacific War Australia-Japan relations. It was a story of adventure and endurance for a small group of Japanese pearl technicians and divers who disembarked on the isolated shore in 1956 and established a successful pearl farm. At the same time, it was a story of ingenious coordination by three businessmen from Japan, the United States and Australia who joined forces to start the venture. I will point out that their pre-war ties in the pearl-shell industry were utilised effectively in the new joint venture, both on the ground and in the process of planning. I will argue that the beginning of the cultured pearl industry in Australia demonstrated not only the changes caused by the tumultuous and devastating war, but also the continuing ties between the peoples which were based on trust and respect.
Dr Keiko Tamura is an honorary senior lecturer in the School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University. She has published widely on Australia-Japan relations, including the Pacific War and its memories and migration. She has conducted research on South Sea pearls as a member of a Japan based research project on movements of people and produce across the seas and national borders.