The Australian pearling industry started in the 1850s at Shark Bay, West Australia, and in Torres Straits in 1868. Sixteen firms were operating from Thursday Island by 1877, and nearly 400 luggers plus more than 3500 people fishing for shell in the waters off Broome by 1910. In 1890 the Torres Strait was supplying over half the world’s demand for pearl shell. The shell was sold in large quantities to England and America, and later Japan, for the manufacture of button and buckles. It was worth anywhere between 79 to 400 pounds a ton. This created a boom time for the pearling areas with large numbers of European, Asian, Islander, Koorie and Chinese people arriving to work in the industry. This in turn had a terrible effect on local islander populations with up to a 50% reduction in population from 1870 to 1900.
Parsons, Thompson, and Co, Sydney:
Here’s a nice little story from the Sydney Morning Herald, 10th February, 1881.
The firm was later renamed as Messrs. Thompson & Co. and traded in Victoria as well.
Mr. Ackman, Bennetts Chambers, Sydney:
Mr Samuel Ackman (Ackmann) was a London born business man who started as a storekeeper in Melbourne, was for a time a money lender in Ballarat, and moved to Sydney around 1875 to run an auctioneers firm ‘Harris and Ackmann’, amongst many other activities. Around 1879 (according to newspaper reports) he established a pearl button and stud factory. He died in 1922, aged 78 years.
Another early manufacturer was John Ward from Birmingham, who traded in Brisbane from at least 1884 to May 1889.
Historically the industry relied on exploitation. At Shark Bay aboriginal people worked without wages to collect shell. Later they were required to dive without equipment into deep waters for shell. The working conditions were very poor and dangerous. Once diving suits were invented, divers, who were often Japanese indentured workers, were required to spend hours at a time under water with danger from shark attack, poor weather and the ‘bends’. The mortality rate may have been as high as 50% for divers.
After Federation, the ‘White Australia Policy’ restricted the immigration of cheap and ‘expendable’ divers. However, due to the deaths of nearly all the 12 British navy divers brought in to work in the industry Broome was made an exception to the ‘White Australia’ policy. Pearling flourished until WW1 caused the market for pearl-shell to crash. The industry would slowly rebuild post war.
The establishment of a pearl button industry here was hampered by a lack of local expertise. In 1929 four Viennese experts came to Australia to help start the ‘Australian Pearlbutton Manufacturing Co. Ltd.’ By 1931 it was employing 40 people and by 1932, eighty people. The company was listed as in liquidation in 1938, then bought and merged into ‘G.Herring (Aust.) Pty. Ltd.’
The examples below of the Golden Lip pearl shell, (Pinctada maxima), were donated to the Powerhouse Museum in 1933.
The industry almost stopped during both world wars due to workers enlisting. During WW2, Japanese divers were imprisoned when Japan entered the war. There were other pressures on the industry. As early as 1934, an overseas expert was warning that pearl prices were dropping due to reduced demand. Fresh water shell and casein were in competition for use in button manufacturing. Casein was considerably cheaper. In 1935 there were reportedly 3 factories in Sydney making pearl buttons and buckles. Despite the hopes of politicians and pearlers, previous over-harvesting as well as high production costs slowed recovery of the industry after the war. There were issues with availability of divers: some wanted to reduce the use of ‘foreign’ divers, whilst others were claiming the industry was reliant on them. During the 1950s plastic buttons and buckles largely replaced those made of pearl shell. A new pearling industry would evolve based on cultured pearl with pearl-shell as a side-line, the opposite to that historically where pearls were the side-line.
Despite the changing times, in March 1952 a new company was formed in Cairns to deal in pearls, mother-of-pearl and trochus shells, plastics and also to manufacture buttons, fancy goods and jewellery. One of the directors was Mr. A.G.R. Griffiths. As general manager and chairman of General Plastics this allowed the arrangement of all marketing of the new company’s buttons by General Plastics. Plant and machinery were to be imported from America with credit from General Plastics. On the 1st May 1952, Mr Griffiths unexpectedly died. None-the-less, by 1954 the company was established on the Cairns waterfront, with machines for trepannation, sorting, grinding, shaping and drilling. The buttons were sent south (probably to General Plastics) for chemical polishing and rumbling. Unfortunately, the era of pearl-shell buttons was over and the business went into liquidation in 1954. It survived with another owner only until around 1956.
Published 8th March 1952, Daily Mercury (Queensland).