Your visit to the Kimberley in Western Australia won’t be complete unless you stop off in Broome and take a tour of Willie Creek Pearls.
Tips for Choosing Your Pearl – Pic by Peter & Francesca on Flickr
Founded in 1989 by the Banfield family—and still operated by them today—it’s a place that provides a captivating introduction to the pearl industry, including some of Western Australia’s most significant history.
In the late 1800s, Broome’s Roebuck Bay was the best site to establish a home base for the divers who were harvesting the riches to be found in the deep, turquoise waters off the Broome peninsula. The beautiful lustre of pearls has always captivated the hearts of both men and women—and it’s even stirred up quite a bit of greed, as well.
Pearls were never easy to come by, especially in the early days; as the word “willie” means cyclone, you can imagine what the weather meant for the boats that were operated throughout the area. A sad testament is the cemetery for over 900 Japanese divers who lost their lives trawling for these tiny spectacular treasures. Willie Creek itself was a place sheltered by mangroves where the pearlers were able to find safe harbor.
The Banfield family originally lived in the southern part of Western Australia, raising sheep and harvesting wheat. It was 1989 when the family patriarch (Don Banfield, now deceased) responded to a request by Lord McAlpine to join him in revitalising Broome. McAlpine had seen the potential in the area a couple decades prior to that, and it was he who established the Cable Beach Resort Club.
McAlpine purchased a pearl farm and began promoting the beautiful silver and sand-coloured pearls that came to be called South Sea pearls. Once he convinced Banfield to join him, the family moved to the area and got their start by establishing a bus tour company to take tourists throughout the Kimberley region. Nowadays their primary focus is Willie Creek Pearls, and the remaining family members—Valda along with her sons, Robert and Darren—maintain the farm with the help of a solid management team.
There are 19 pearl farming licenses in all of Australia, and 18 of them can be found in Western Australia. The pearl industry brings in over a half million pearls, and the industry grosses over $200 million per year.
In today’s safer pearling industry, divers take to the waters from January through March searching for oysters big enough to produce substantial pearls. The industry limits Willie Creek divers to less than 600,000 oysters, and from there the oysters are taken to an area where they rest for four months before they are transferred to a hatchery. Minimum sizes are established so that the oysters can be cultivated in a healthy environment utilising strictly controlled processes.
In order to seed the oyster, a small piece of a Mississippi mussel is taken and implanted through a slit in the oyster’s gonads. The process is conducted by well trained technicians who earn a good pay check for this delicate work. The mussel placed alongside a mantle that secretes nacre forms the small implanted nucleus. The oyster then is transferred to ocean waters where it remains for approximately two years before it is checked for a pearl.
Willie Creek offers several types of pearls:
• The cultured pearls, formed as just described within oysters, made from smooth, lustrous calcium carbonate crystals that create uniformly-sized pearls generally 10-20mm in size.
• Freshwater pearls are small pearls that grow naturally inside mussels and are generally shaped very irregularly.
• Keshi pearls are from oysters and are very small and irregular; they are more precious because they grow naturally. The nacre that forms them is very bright.
• Mabe pearls grow inside hemispherical structures implanted in the oysters. When harvested, the inside is cleaned out and filled with a resin material, and then a disc made from shell is glued to the flat side of the pearl. Most of these range from 12-20mm in diameter.
There is an annual Japanese ceremony celebrating the pearl called the Shinju Matsuri. This Festival of the Pearl dates back from the earliest days of pearl harvesting, when mother-of-pearl was the most common prize, and continues with today’s cultured pearl farming industry. It takes place during the end of winter, in September of each year, with parades, art displays, dance, the auctioning of “Pollie’s Pearl” (a large pearl designed by the festival committee and financed by the seven members of parliament), and many more gala events.
Your visit to the Kimberley won’t be complete without a stop at Willie Pearl Farms—and, if you arrive at the end of winter, you can participate in Shinju Matsura. You can travel via coach or helicopter and drive yourself around the area. Several pearl tours are offered, and take some time to visit the Willie Creek café—the perfect end to your day in Broome.