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Bruce Wiggan continues the tradition
Bruce Wiggan continues the tradition
Better than striking gold, Dean Brown and his son Lyndon had learned the magic, cracked the code of you like on how to successfully culture pearls and become the first non-Japanese people to do so.
The year is 1960 and the first trial harvest of cultured pearls is in – Cygnet Bay Pearls has chartered a new course in pearling. From bark huts and handmade tools, the story of Australia’s cultured pearling pioneers has begun. Up until this moment it was only the Japanese that had the expertise on how to successfully culture pearls. No farm in the world had ever been started without Japanese involvement. That just changed thanks to the Brown’s and their passionate dedication to a quest that was considered virtually impossible.
The Brown’s had been collecting pearl shell since 1946; but the pearl shelling industry, which gave rise to Broome and its title as “the pearling capital of Australia”, was slowly but surely fading away. The little, family owned pearling company was struggling for survival. With everything on the line their experiments to culture pearl was, perhaps, a last role of the dice. No one would have given them a chance of success, perhaps they didn’t either, but with the classic Australian spirit of never say die and never give up they “had a go”. It is surely one of the nation’s classic ‘Ozzie battler’ succeeding against all the odds’ stories.
Imagine the feeling of elation that must have swept through them as they revealed those first few pearls from the Mother of Pearls oysters that had nurtured them. A moment of pure ecstasy, followed by the deep contemplation of “can they do it again”? It was the start of the long and difficult journey of Cygnet Bay becoming one of the world’s premier pearl farms.
Once Lyndon Brown had mastered the art he shared the secret of pearl cultivation with his dedicated and talented work mates, three Bardi aboriginal blokes, Albury Tiggan, Tom Wiggan and Gordon Dickson. A pivotal point in time, of global significance, as the ‘magical’ process of growing these valuable gems was only known to a select group of Japanese, one white, 19 year old Australian and three aboriginal men. Dean and Lyndon were joined by Dean’s youngest son Bruce and the three of them set about forging a business out of bark huts, pindan and the azure waters of Cygnet Bay. And so the face of Australian pearling was changed forever.
In the decades that followed the Browns were instrumental in not just developing their own business, but also paving the way for a whole new modern Australian industry. In the 70’s they helped introduce the first modern diving equipment to the W.A. pearling fleet along with the first high-tech fibreglass pearling lugger. If you’re a Broome aficionado and familiar with Shinju Matsuri Festival, Australia’s festival of the pearl, the first Shinju Queen was adorned with pearls donated by Cygnet Bay Pearls. Around that time, Cygnet Bay Pearls opened Broome’s first cultured pearl shop.
The name Brown may not come to mind like Paspaley or Kailis when it comes to Australian pearling, but that is often the way with humble Australian pioneers. The Browns didn’t set out to change the world but, incidentally, do just that; by leading with passion and dedication. Some that entered the industry later, in its peak, got blinded by ambition and greed to control the whole industry. On the other hand, the Browns were satisfied with keeping their interests focused on Cygnet Bay. They dedicated themselves to a deeper understanding of the environment, creating a beautiful pearling village, which boasted a public school, weather station, grass tennis court and store, and the pursuit of the perfect pearl.
After nearly half a century and the hard work and dedication of three generations of the Brown family to Cygnet Bay the pearling industry had reached incredible heights. By the early 2000’s Cygnet Bay was producing one of the rarest and most valuable pearl harvests in the world, which was quickly snapped up by international wholesale markets. 2004 was no different, except among the extraordinary harvest there lay one exceptional piece. An enormous pearl; near golf ball size with all the desired hallmarks of a ‘perfect pearl’: a pink hue and near perfect clean lustrous white skin, it may just be the largest fine quality round pearl in the world. The Brown’s tireless pursuit is reflected in this one piece – the epic path to pearling perfection and its rarity and beauty reflect the blood, sweat, tears and joy of all that played a part in the Cygnet Bay story. Now the family proudly displays this priceless pearl to the public in their China Town showroom as a flagship piece and a reminder to all of just how far the Australian Industry has come.
In the early 2000’s 17 independent pearl producers plied the Kimberley coast. But the economics of pearling was about to shift. The GFC devastated wholesale pearl prices and within a few years only three pearl producers were left, Cygnet Bay Pearls, Paspaley and Clipper Pearls.
In their typical, innovative nature, the Brown’s again set out to help recover this iconic Australian industry and adapt it to help ensure its survival for future generations. In 2009 Cygnet Bay Pearls opened its doors to the public, inviting them to not only discover what it takes to run a pearl farm but, in another industry first, gave people the opportunity to view and purchase pearls directly from the waters in which they were nurtured. All with the background of the extraordinary Kimberley coast.
It is still today the only commercial pearl farm open to the public and has invested in tourism facilities including; ensuited safari tents; renovated, historically listed pearlers shacks; a licenced restaurant with sweeping verandas and infinity edged pool overlooking the beautiful bay where this remarkable story unfolded.
The Browns have also developed the Kimberley Marine Research Station (KMRS), the only dedicated marine research station in the Kimberley. It is one of only three independently funded marine research station in the world and the only one in Australia country and helps scientists better understand one of the last virtually untouched marine wildernesses left on earth. This is just another way the Browns are giving back to the region in an effort to help manage the incredible Kimberley marine environment for the benefit of future generations and to help the Traditional owners of the area realise suitable new enterprise opportunities for a healthy and prosperous Kimberley. Their passion for the marine environment and their desire to tell the entire pearling story has led to the development of a range of marine eco-tours that showcase unique aspects. An example is the Giant Tides Sea Safari; where you get to ride the world’s fastest ocean currents generated by the enormous tides. These tides are beating heart of the Kimberley coast and the force of nature that powers the pearl farm. If you plan your trip well you can even witness a literal waterfall in the ocean on the farm’s Waterfall Reef Experience tour. An experience so bizarre it has to been seen to be truly appreciated, something that only occurs in the Kimberley, and should be on everybody’s bucket list.
As part of this year’s 70th anniversary celebrations Cygnet Bay Pearls is creating a range of new experiences for you and building new shops in Broome’s famous China Town pearl street of Dampier Terrace. The ‘state of the art’ new showroom will be filled with an exquisite new jewellery range, of course featuring the world’s highest quality Australian pearls, and an ‘in Broome, farm experience’ where you can see the tools of the modern pearling trade and hear more about this incredible Australian story.
Bardi corroborree the Brown’s were invited to, 1960
The advent of plastics sees the end of the demand for mother-of-pearl for buttons. The 1922 Pearling Act is repealed and cultured pearling is legalised.
If there was a moment that marked the end of mother-of-pearl fishing as an industry, this was it.
Mother-of-pearl fishing resumes, but never returns to its former glory. Only a handful of luggers are operating.
During WWII the industry was shut down when all luggers were impounded by the Australian Government for fear that the Japanese would seize them.
The Great Depression saw the mother-of-pearl fishing industry go into decline.
Cultured Pearling Made Illegal.
Captain Gregory attempted to culture pearls to the south of Broome, only to be shut down by the pearling masters. His attempts triggered the 1922 Pearling Act, which prohibited anyone in Western Australia from producing cultured pearls, in order to protect the lucrative motherof-pearl industry. Thus the Japanese continued to dominate the global cultured-pearl industry. Forty years later, when Dean Brown established the first all-Australian cultured pearling company and applied for the first cultured-pearling licence, the government officer handed Dean the pearl nuclei that had been sitting in a safe since being confiscated from Capitan Gregory and his Japanese pearl technicians.
Life as a pearlshell diver, or even aboard a lugger, was a gamble. In 1887 and 1935 cyclones wiped out much of the lugger fleet, killing 140 men on both occasions. Drowning, diver paralysis (the bends), beriberi, tropical infections, heat stroke, malnutrition and other hazards were constant threats and regularly took lives.
Power and Influence.
Because of the power and influence of the mother-of-pearl industry, Broome was the only town in the country exempt from the White Australia policy, to allow for the employment of the predominantly Asian crew that manned the luggers, hence Broome’s Chinatown.