Chris digs his thumbs into the muscular flesh he holds in the palm of his hand. After a long minute, his thumbs find the hard, round bead he’s been searching for. A brown stained seed pops out. Our disappointment is palpable.
He carefully prises open a second oyster and again his thumbs poke around the fleshy muscle.
“There it is,” he exclaims. A lustrous white pearl emerges from the slippery flesh. There’s an audible sigh of wonder.
Broken Bay Pearl Farm
I’m a guest on a tour of Broken Bay Pearl Farm, the only place on the East Coast of Australia where you can actually see a pearl being harvested.
The Shellar Door
The newly launched so-called “Shellar Door” at Mooney Mooney on the Hawkesbury River an hour north of Sydney is housed in an old oyster shed. Jewellery cabinets display lustrous local Akoya and West Australian South Sea pearls.
One cabinet contains a photograph of Aboriginal Elder and Traditional Owner Bruce Wiggan and some of his riji. These hand-shaped, carved and painted South Sea Pearl Shells were originally used for trading. Each beautiful piece has its own story
A wooden work table stands at the open end of the shed, looking out past the river to Spectacle Island. Two enormous black and white photographs dominate the back wall. In one, an oyster farmer sorts through boxes of Sydney Rock Oysters, while in the other, huge mounds of South Sea Pearl shells fill a large metal shed.
A Brief History of Broken Bay Pearl Farm
Pearl farming in Broken Bay Pearls is only 17 years old. How did I not know that pearls are farmed in Sydney’s backyard?
James Brown, a third-generation pearl farmer and marine biologist is Managing Director of Pearls of Australia comprising Broken Bay Pearls and Cygnet Bay Pearls in Broome. He explains that his is “the only company in Australia to grow both the smaller Akoya pearl and the South Sea Pearl.”
While the South Sea Oyster thrives on the tropical waters around Broome, the Akoya Oyster occurs naturally in the clean, cooler waters of Broken Bay. The mangroves and sea grass found in these waters create a perfect environment for growing Akoya pearls.
Donning our rain jackets for protection from the soft drizzle, we leave the Shellar Door for the water-based part of the tour. A pelican glides gracefully overhead as we climb aboard a punt which doubles as a working oyster boat.
Speeding up the narrow channel signposted with red and green markers, we pass a series of white poles indicating an oyster lease. The loud engine prevents conversation and we absorb the beauty of the broad river and native bushland lining its shores.
Returning to The Shellar Door
Shortly, Chris glides the boat to a halt. It’s decision time. The rain is coming in and the weather looks heavy and bleak. He suggests turning back to the shelter of the oyster shed. There’s no argument from his passengers.
We gather around the worktable where small hand tools, a couple of oyster baskets and some oysters are laid out. Chris explains the complicated business of pearl farming.
How Pearls Grow
First, the fertilised eggs are grown into spats (oyster larvae) in a laboratory. Within a year they are big enough to be put into the river in fine netted baskets. After two years, the oysters are ready for seeding, a delicate process requiring skill and patience.
Cradling an oyster in his palm, he carefully demonstrates how to gently prise open the oyster shell using special reverse action pliers, taking care not to tear the muscle. When the muscle has relaxed, the shell can be opened further.
Then the seed (a small round bead made from a Mississippi Clam) and a tiny piece of oyster tissue are introduced into the oyster’s gonad.
Two weeks later the oyster has recuperated from this ‘operation’ and is returned to the river where it will mature. Over the next two years, with care and the right conditions the oyster will grow a beautiful lustrous pearl.
The Secure Pearl Room
In the secure pearl room trays holding forty different sized and coloured pearls await our inspection. Jodi encourages us to sort the pearls according to size and colour as she runs through the seven virtues of pearls.
Learning about the Seven Virtues of Pearls
Tentatively, I pick up the largest pearl in my tray, the smooth surface shining brilliantly. An odd-looking teardrop shape it’s about 1cm long with a strange bump near the top some rings around the base this is a unique baroque pearl.
The other smaller pearls are perfect spheres and roll around easily in the palm of my hand. Displaying different colours, there’s classic cream, shades of gold and one has blueish tinge.
Size, lustre, colour, shape, surface, provenance and purity all contribute to a pearl’s value. Unlike elsewhere, here at Broken Bay and at Cygnet Bay, pearls are not shaped for perfection or chemically treated to achieve better colour. It can take years to get a strand of identical pearls.
Advice on Pearls from Broken Bay Pearl Farm
I leave pondering Jodi’s parting words: “Grandma’s pearls stored in a dark drawer will lose their lustre and colour. Pearls are meant to be worn.”
The Shellar door is at 12 Kowan Road Mooney Mooney NSW 2083. Tour participants arriving by train can arrange a pick up from Hawkesbury River Station
- Land based guided tour of the working pearl shed
- Pearl Farm Cruise
- Access to the Secure Pearl Room
Phone: +61 (0) 488 361 042