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South Sea Pearls: Australia, Indonesia, Myanmar, New Guinea

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History of South Sea Pearl Production

South Sea Pearls are prized for their large size, high luster and colors ranging from white and cream, to silver, pink, lavender and gold. Australia, Indonesia, Myanmar (Burma), Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines are the primary geographic regions for the cultivation of South Sea pearls. South Sea pearls range in size from 9mm to as much as 20mm, with an average size of around 12mm.

Cultured South Sea pearls are produced with one of the largest pearl-bearing oysters, the Pinctada Maxima, (aka Silver-Lipped or Gold-Lipped) oyster from Austrailia. This silver or gold lipped mollusk can grow to the size of a dinner plate but are highly sensitive to the culturing process. This sensitivity adds to the cost and rarity of South Sea pearls. Sizes up to 14 milimeters in diameter are not uncommon in South Sea pearls. There are varieties of "black pearls" from the South Seas that are mistaken for Tahitian pearls. These South Sea black pearls also come from the "black-lipped oyster," or Pinctada Margaritifera.

South Sea Pearl Cultivation

South Sea Pearl Farms (Photo, Right: Public Domain)

Pearl cultivation in the 'South Seas' was pioneered by Sukeo and Masayo Fujita, famous for their work in the Japanese Akoya pearl industry. In the early 1900s, Sukeo Fujita went in search of suitable habitats for pearl cultivation, traveling to Broome in Western Australia, Southern Mindanao and Northern Palawan in the Philippines, and Molucca and Sulawesi in Indonesia. These expeditions were financed by Mitsubishi's Baron Iwasaki, and the first cultivated 'South Sea pearls' became known as "Mitsubishi Pearls." All of the areas identified by Sukeo Fujita went on to become major producers of high quality South Sea pearls.

Other notable Japanese pioneers in the South Sea pearl industry were Kichiro Takashima of the South Sea Pearl Company, Kokichi Mikimoto of Mikimoto Pearls, and Tokuichi Kuribayashi of the Pearl Shell Fishing Co.

Australia's South Sea Pearls

The South Sea 'Pearling' industry began in the nutrient-rich waters off the coast of Broome, in Western Australia started in the 1870s, with the discovery of the Pinctada Maxima oyster, and the first 'South Sea pearls' were originally called "Broome pearls." At first, Aboriginal women divers were used because of their large lung capacity, which helped them stay underwater longer, thereby gathering more pearl-ladened oysters.

Soon pearling schooners called luggers were used as dive vessels, and diving suits fed by air pumps were used to mechanize the harvesting process. By the early 1900s, Broome's pearl industry employed nearly 2000 people, including Aboriginal Australians and workers from Japan, China, Timor, Malaysia and the Philippines.

The first of Broome's cultured pearl farms began in 1956, at the 'Kuri Bay' cultured Pearl farm. Harvesting takes place during the months of January to March. Today, nearly 60% of the world's South-Sea cultured pearls are from the Broome region's dozen or so cultured pearl farms, creating a AU$200 million dollar per year industry. Sixteen license holders such as Pearl Oyster Propagators Ltd. and Paspaley Pearls run the Australian pearl cultivation industry, with Paspaley enjoying a market share of nearly 50%.

On the other side of Australia, is Far North Queensland's South Sea pearl farming region, where pearl cultivation has occurred since the 19th century. This Pearling region is located in the waters off a series of islands in the Coral Sea, between Cape York Peninsula and Papua New Guinea. Pearls have been cultured on the remote Friday Island for nearly 50 years.

Myanmar South Sea Pearls

Myanmar's cultured pearl industry began in the 1950s, when Japanese businessman Kichiro Takashima started the 'South Sea Pearl Company.' The primary region for the cultured pearl industry is on the Mergui Pearl Islands (aka Sir J Malcolm Island) in the Mergui Archipelago.

Pearl Cultivation

South Sea Pearl Farms (Photos: Public Domain)

The Myanmar government nationalized the pearl industry in the 1960s, and today pearl cultivation is a State-owned economic enterprise known as the 'Myanmar Pearl Enterprise' or MPE, which is part of the 'Ministry of Mines.' In the mid 1990s the government began several joint ventures between private foreign companies and MPE. Myanmar's cultured pearl production reached its peak in the 1980s, with the harvesting of over '17 kans' of pearls.

Indonesian South Sea Pearls

Indonesia's South Sea pearls naturally occur in several colors ranging from white and cream, to silver, pink, and gold. Indonesian cultured Southsea pearls are produced in the waters surrounding Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, and in West Papua Province (Irian Jaya), within the Raja Ampat (Four Kings) archipelago, at Alyui Bay's Waigeo island. Irian Jaya is a remote and unpolluted region that is known as the "The last primitive land on the earth."

Bali's pearl farms are located in the calm waters off the island's north-western coast, in the Buleleng District, near Gerokgak. There are several pearl farms in the West Nusa Tenggara Barat region of Lombok, known for its "golden pearls" from the Gold-Lipped oyster (Pinctada maxima). Lombok has over 24 active pearl farms pearl farms, on or near Sekotong's ten islands, on south-western tip of Lombok.

The Molucca islands are located in the eastern part of Indonesia near Malaysia. Pearl farming in the Moluccas (Maluku Province) takes place around the Aru Islands group (Aroe Islands), a cluster of 95 islands in the Arafura Sea, and on Ambon Island in the Seram island group. Pearling has been a part of Aruese trade for hundreds of years. Pearl culturing began on Aru in the early 1900s as part of Kokichi Mikimoto's quest for the Pinctada maxima's perfect growing conditions.

Pearl farming on Sulawesi island (aka Celebes) takes place within Tomini Bay, in the waters off of the Togian Islands archipelago, and around the Banggai Archipelago off Sulawesi's north-east coast.

Philippines South Sea Pearls

Pearl cultivation in the Philippines was pioneered by Sukeo and Masayo Fujita in the early 1900s. There work centered around two main areas: Southern Mindanao, in the Samal Island archipelago, and Northern Palawan's Calamian Island chain in the Sulu Sea and South China Sea.

Samal Pearl Farm Resort (Photo:

South Sea pearl culturing in the Southern Mindanao region of the Philippines took place in the Samal Island archipelago, in the south-east part of the country. White-lipped oysters were transported from the Sulu Sea, on the western side of the Philippines, to be cultivated along the western side of Samal Island. Samal was known for its cultivated gold, pink, and white south-sea pearls.

Pearl cultivation in the Sulu Sea's Northern Palawan region of Southern Tagalog, takes place around Lamud Island, in what is known as the "pearl islands" of Western Busuanga. This are is at the northern end of Palawan, between Busuanga island and Culion Island. Pearl cultivation in Zamboanga began in the early 1900s.

The world's largest pearl (Pearl of Lao-Tzu or Pearl of Allah) was found this region in 1934, weighing 14 lbs. There were several unsuccessful attempts to expand cultivation, concluding with the failed 'Zamboanga Pearl Farms' in the 1960s. There is still an indigenous pearling industry in Zamboanga, selling 'Badjao Pearls' farmed by the Badjaos peoples.

Micronesia & Palau South Sea Pearls

Palau is a tiny island nation some 800 km east of the Philippines. The first pearl farms on Palau were started in 1922, by Kokichi Mikimoto. Palau continues to be a pearl farming region to this day.

Pearl farms within the Cook Islands and Marshall Islands chains are the Robert Reimers Enterprises Pearl Farm at Nam Lagoon on Arno Atoll, and Black Pearls of Micronesia Inc. based in Majuro, Republic of the Marshall Islands. In the U.S. Affiliated Pacific Islands, 1000 miles Southwest of Majuo are Nukuoro pearl farms located on the atoll of Nukuoro in Pohnpei State.

Bibliography & Suggestions for Further Study on South Sea Pearls

1. Diving Heritage, Australian Pearling .

2. Atlas Pacific, Indonesia Pearl Farms .

3. Andy Muller, The Lure of the South Seas .

4. Golden Pearls, Lombok Golden Pearls .

5. Paspaley Pearls, South Sea Pearls .

6. POP, Pearl Oyster Propagators Ltd. .

7. Gellner, Pearls .

8. Golay, Golay Pearls .

9. Blue Pearls, Pacific Blue Pearls - New Zealand .

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