24["Famous Pearls of Broome", The Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 07 May 1938, page 21]


Featherweights of Fortune.


By Ernestine Hill.

Out of the depths, at the eleventh hour, comes the salvation of little white Broome, in a gift of the sea valued in Paris at 10,000--a mighty atom of lustrous light that is worth 5,000 times its weight in gold.

For the past 10 years, the tide of good fortune has been at "dead neaps" in Broome. The dreamy and beautiful port of pearls was losing all its glamour, the halo of its high romance was merely history. Brummagem trochus of the five and ten cent stores had cheapened the radiance of the world's finest pearl shell. Fifty luggers put out to sea where once there were 400, and even they were subsidised to keep their owners afloat. No white shell-openers sailed with the fleet, and half of the pearlers deserted, leaving their ships high and dry in the sands of Dampier Creek, and the shady bungalows of better days to memories and the white ants.

And now? The wildfire whisper of a "big stone," the epic stone of half a century, will bring sea-fever to old adventurers and young, swinging north to the Lacepedes, south of Lagrange, with renewed hope in their hearts. The foreshore camps and the bar-rooms will ring with the tales of great pearls of the past. Some men are still there who have found them.

The pearling seas of the north gleam blue round the coasts of half Australia, but the ethereal beauties of Broome alone have won for us world-wide fame. Under Imperial patronage, the modest oyster of the Eighty Mile Beach has executed commissions for Victoria and Alexandra and Mary of England, Catherine of Russia, Eugenie of France, and princes and prelates and sultans by the score. His "purest, rays" are rarely seen in his native land, because it cannot afford them. The coronet, the tiara, and the royal turban claim them all. Each year, the Jewish connoisseurs from the great Paris jewellers travel the globe to carry away a handful of Broome pearls.

The "Southern Cross."

The first, big stone of the coast was Black's, in 1873, found in the Flying Foam Passage. The story is that Captain Black "bought it from a nigger for a broken pocket-knife," and that may very well be. He sold it in London for 2,500, and Bond Street jewellers looked up Australia on the map.

In 1882, a boy of 12 years named Tommy Clarke--he died in Broome five years ago--was dry-shelling on the reefs of Baldwin Creek at low tide with an old lubra, when he picked up the "Southern Cross." It was four Inches long, a remarkable jewel of eight pearls in the almost perfect form of a cross. His father, he told me, sold it to "Shiner" Kelly at the Lacepede Islands for 10 and a bottle of gin. That was the beginning. One of the lesser wonders of the world, It ultimately changed hands for 27,000, reposed for some years on velvet in the Vatican, and is one of the personality jewels of all time.

The oyster that fashioned that "Southern Cross" must have endured perpetual agony.

Since "the old swimmin' days" when aboriginal women and men lived and died in those opalescent seas, blackbirded in from the deserts to schooners and barques drifting the reefs for a thousand miles, many an anonymous beauty has slipped away from Australia, unheralded and unsung, and not declared through the Customs. The Jews and the Japs and the Chinese, the Malays and Manilamen and South Sea Islanders, the white adventurers from Sweden to Samoa, who are always lured by the light of pearls, could tell some thrilling stories--they prefer discretion, and cash in hand, and "puzzle, find the pearl." One hears of the clever ruses of "snide" only when plots are discovered.

Stones of Dark Destiny.

There was Walton's Pearl--he came on the Lady Dennison brig with the fleets from Thursday Island. His Filipino diver found a "rajah's perfect round," and gave it to a Torres Strait woman aboard the brig to guard for him till the season was over. The Lady Dennison went down in a hurricane with all her coloured crew. The diver returned and spent months there diving, and the whole fleet with him when at last the tale was told, to find that drowned woman, and the treasures she kept in a little bottle hung round her neck. The sea had taken its own again, for the body was never recovered.

One night, In 1904, the Jewish buyer Liebglid was murdered on the derelict schooner Mist, lying opposite the Roebuck Hotel in Dampier Creek. He had been in negotiation with three desperadoes, a Swede, a Patagonian, and a Manilaman, to obtain possession, for a paltry 500, of a stone worth 5,000, hidden somewhere in the Asiatic quarter, and offered for secret sale. Liebglid is buried In Broome cemetery, and the three guilty men were hanged in Fremantle, but the fatal pearl remained forever a mystery, though it had been seen and certified as 105 grains, and a man had been charged with stealing it.

A few years before the war, when the archduchesses of Russia were avid buyers, the coral reefs yielded a glorious single stone that was sold for 8,000--we shall call it Duckett's Pearl, for that was not the owner's name. Duckett lived to curse the day he found it. He had worked long in Broome, and earned enough to buy a lugger, the Struggler. It prospered, and he bought another, the Why Not. With an honest diver and good results, he christened the next the Virtue, and Virtue was rewarded, for she brought him the famous pearl. The fourth of his fleet was named in its honour, the Welcome. He and his wife set forth on a spectacular tour, and returned and bought a cattle station.

Within two years, the cattle station proved a catastrophe. A shell-opener who was not on the ship, but had a clause in his contract for "20 per cent, commission on all pearls found," cost him 1,000 in litigation, and won. The fleet, was sold to pay his debts. His wife grew restive, and left him. All he had to start again svas enough to build another lugger. He called that the Experience.

Such is the humour In Broome, where men gamble with pearls and fate--in hard times and in hurricanes, in life and in death, good losers.

Pageant in Mother-of-Pearl.

The biggest pearl ever found there was from Moss and Richardson's luggers about 25 years ago--a pigeon's egg of roseate light. 160 grains. No pearl-cleaner touched it--it gleamed in perfection when it came from the sea, but the demand was poor at the time, and it realised only 4000. The celebrated "Star of the West," from James Clark's luggers, in charge of Mr. J. T. Mackenzie, of Broome, in 1916. had better luck. A brilliant, "drop" of 105 grains, it brought 6,500.

Not more than three stones have touched the 5,000 mark since the war. Seed-pearl, flat button, high button, double button, "pear" or "drop," and perfect round-so run the values ascending, and the usual worth of a perfect round is the square of its grains in pounds. A 20-grain pearl of fair quality might be expected to bring 400. But a jewel of distinction is a pearl without price, and the governing factor is particular demand. For a special purpose--a pendant, or tiara, or a millionaire's fancy--the right pearl to the pearler is a gift of the gods, as in the present instance.

Such men as Streeter, the well-known jeweller of Hatton Garden, whose family still retains interests in Broome; Mark Rubin, the financier; Captain Biddells, Roderiguez of the Sree pas Sair, and Mr. H. D. Norman, who is now the sole survivor of those grand old schooner skippers of an earlier age, have watched a pageant of adventure in the great silver-lipped pearlshell of Roebuck Bay. Even the younger pearlers, Captain Ancell Gregory, Mr. J. T. Mackenzie, Claude Hawkes, Mr. D. MacDaniell, and the Bardwells, Bernard and Beresford, who themselves found pearl worth 5,000, have memories alight with romance.

Only a few months ago, T. B. Ellies died there, the Cingalese pearl-cleaner, who had dressed every great stone in half a century, a character picturesque indeed. He was acclaimed throughout the world as a craftsman unexcelled. An ebony Buddha, but always smiling, his face was a mask of discretion. Those capable black hands--with a snake-ring of Chinese gold coiled round one finger, its wickedly-winking eye a blue-water diamond--held, In their time all the splendid secrets of the sea.

I think it would have grieved T.B. to know that the greatest stone in the annals of Broome should be just too late for his loving concentration and his care.