27["Strange Story of Man Who Holds Key to Our Most Secret Industry", The Sunday Times (Perth, WA), Sunday 26 October 1930, page 9]
Strange Story of Man Who Holds Key to Our Most Secret Industry
By ERNEST HILL
On a recent boat from Broome to Singapore, en route for Ceylon, there travelled a smiling Cingalese boy, and in his keeping a rare and costly necklace of Australian pearls.
The pearls, 109 small stones, graduating from 1 1/2 grains to 12 grains, represent years of collecting, careful choice, and expert placing, and are a gift to his wife-to-be, whom he has never seen.
The boy is the son of T. B. Ellies, of Broome--one of the most noted pearl critics and pearl cleaners in the world.
"Licensed Pawnbroker and Pearl Cleaner" reads the sign above his small white shop, with barred windows, in Broome's Asiatic quarter--an unimaginative sign, an ordinary shop, much like the green-grocer's next door; yet, there is no corner in Australia richer in romance and mystery.
In the last 35 years practically all that was most lustrous and lovely from Broome waters has taken sanctuary for a little while within those walls.
Thousands of pounds worth of pearls pass through Ellies' hands each year, milk-white jewels of the sea that in those subtle dark fingers glow with a pure barbaric splendour that white shoulders can never reflect.
Deftly he touches them, subconsciously weighs and judges, smiles rarely over a perfect gem. They are his life's work.
Son, grandson, and great-grandson of jewellers and silver-workers of Point du Galle, in 1884, little more than a boy, Ellies came to Cossack, then headquarters of the pearling fleet. That was in the bad old "swimmin' days" when the niggers set out in dinghies, dropped' overboard into eight clear fathoms, and brought up pearl-shell in both hands.
Never a buyer vas seen along the west coast in those days; the pearls were kept in pickle-bottles on the schooner-shelves, and irregularly taken down to Fremantle jewellers to be sold.
When the Broome beds were discovered, Ellies moved on up to Broome. That was 37 years ago. and many an epic pearl has passed beneath his tiny file and soft brush since then.
A few there were, fashioned in Nature's rarest perfection, that needed never a touch. One of these was the 160-gr. beauty found by Moss' luggers in Broome seas in 1911. "I look at it for 20 minutes," he will tell you, with his unfailing smile. "Nothing to do. Only sell."
Another was the "Star of the West," the magnificent drop-gem of the 1916 season, pinhole and all complete, which changed hands for £6400. Even in the last ten years, with pearls lower in price than they have ever been, an occasional beauty has touched the scales at 100-grs. and reached the £4000
The entrance to the little shop is an ordinary jeweller's counter, with cases of cheap wrist watches and the bright brummagem beloved of colored men when money is plentiful at lay-up. A pair of polished turtles, much carved pearl-shell, a hatpin top which brings many a sly smile at the expense of Broome tourists--but from there you will pass to the little barred room with the green-topped table, where so many a dazzling fortune has come to the light of day.
There, dark and smiling, a humorist, a philosopher, and a rare companion, you will find the master cleaner of pearls.
An iron safe stands in one corner, holding gems of purest ray, lovingly wrapped in cotton wool and tissue, blue as the seas from which they have come. The big stories of that little room will never be written; for all Broome knows that Ellies, notwithstanding his geniality, is the soul of discretion.
Great pearls, unlike the beauties who wear them, lose their lustre when they are talked about.
In this room, year by year, are unfolded the greatest secrets of the most secret industry on earth--the 80-grain stones that peel away to nothing, the brilliant double-buttons that are flawed right through, the little spheres of roseate light that set Jew agents of Paris houses rubbing their hands, the blisters that hold mere air or a fortune.
The pearl-cleaner has been offered £25 by one curious, merely to look at a pearl known to be temporarily in his possession. "That," he says quietly, "I have not any time to."
In match-boxes and paper bags and handkerchief-corners they come, in the binding of a book or embedded in a cake of soap, in the most unlikely places in the world--riddles of fate for the dark master-jeweller to unravel. Then monocle lens is brought out and the fine chisel. Fortunate the
pearler, breathlessly waiting, who hears at last the quiet, "I think you have luck, my friend."
In his keeping at the moment, among a multitude of other, gems, softly glowing, is a rare "high button," its lustrous weight not of earth, that weighs out £1500 worth of clear jewel on the delicate carat scales and a magnificent single button of 104 grains that, except for the flaw of a "waist," would bring from £8000 to £10,000. Such is the fortune of pearls. While a great stone may be sold for mere hundreds, it is on record that a 22-gr. gem bas brought £3000.
£50 an Hour
A light file, a downy brush, a worn patch of chamois tacked to the table-these are the only implements of the profession.
"Tools don't do work," says Ellies; "it is your eye, your hand, your brain."
Stone defects most common are hammer-marks and pin-holes, but, in one instance, where a great cut with an oyster knife had damaged a rare pearl, a few hours' patient labor eradicated the very appreciable blemish. For that pearl, for which the owner received a few hundreds, the skilful cleaning
raised the value to nearly as many thousands.
On a stone of serene lustre a few years ago, four hours' con- centration secured him £200, and the owner £4000. His fees are not high in comparison with the value of pearls. Higher prices from the buyers, and hundreds of pounds that would otherwise go to the French jewellers are saved to Broome by his craftsmanship.
Pearl experts of three continents honor his judgments and appreciate his work, and pearls have gone all round the world and back for him to clean. It is not on record that he was ever badly mistaken in the value of a stone.
To the full he enjoys the mad gamble of the blisters. "Onetime someone bring me drop in blister, say how much you give this one. I laugh. Not take chance ten pound this one. I open it--75-gr. pearl inside. Thal pearl I sell to one friend from Paris for three thousand pound."
From the knowledge of 40 years, be tells of the changing fashions in color and form--the Rajah's pearl, faultlessly round; the double and single buttons, the drop, the oval, the baby seed pearls, and the baroque that sometimes achieves greatness from its freak shape, for instance, the famous "Southern Cross" of Cossack, first sold for a bottle of rum and ultimately for many thousands.
London jewellers, for England's fair beauties, buy mostly the white pearl; vivacious Parisiennes, the most avid buyers, prefer the roseate Oriental stone, while the harems and courts of the Indies and the East seek the straw-colored jewels that harmonise with dark complexions.
The synthetic stone of Nippon makes very little appeal to this scientist in pearls. "Color very nice, shape very nice sometimes," he tells you, "but never last, family to family, same this pearl. Skin crack one place, come all round. Nature do better."
Where East Meets West
Honesty, humor, and much kindliness have made Ellies an outstanding character in the life of Australia's port of pearls. A rich blending of East and West, his family life has had its setting here. Two sons, born in "Australia, educated in Perth, now share the life in Broome, although neither is a pearl expert. Both have had their wives chosen for them from the home people in Ceylon--not for them the polyglot of Broome.
In 1917 Ellies returned to the Point du Gaile, and to his dead parents' memory erected a Buddhist temple of much magnificence, set softly among Cingalese palms. This was completed in 1923, the process of building having taken five years, and was opened with pomp and circumstance by the High Priest of Kandy, it is the only temple in all Ceylon endowed by one man.
"We have many days' great show," says the builder of the temple; "elephant dress up, much ceremony. That temple it have six Buddhist priests, stay there all time." The interior is an exquisite shrine of white ebony, and the Buddha is carved of 700 ounces of silver, the work of the craftsman's own hands.
An exquisite diamond hair-clasp and much dainty filigree in gold and silver, work of his earlier days before he was drawn into the life of the pearling coasts, are packed away in the big safe. Ever loving his art for its own sake, he now and again fashions a rich setting. But pearls are his science and his life.
Some day Ellies believes that he may go back to live in an Eastern house that faces the temple and the dawn. But Australia bas been his home for more than 40 years,
and, in the meantime, in that little room of big memories at the back of his shop, he is content to be a cleaner of pearls.
Asiatics and Our Pearls
In accordance with the "White Australia" policy it was originally determined that the employment of Asiatic labor in the pearl-shelling industry should be restricted, and ultimately cease, and it was proposed that after December 31, 1913, permits ta bring in Asiatics for the pearling fleet should be no longer issued.
In view, however, of the disorganisation of the industry occasioned by the war, the time was extended to June 30, 1918, after which date permits to introduce Asiatic labor were to be granted only in cases where the diver and tender of a boat were Europeans.
A Royal Commission, appointed in March, 1912, presented its final report in 1916. The Commissioners stated that, though it might be practicable, they did not consider it advisable or profitable to attempt to transfer the industry from Asiatics to Europeans. They farther stated that, while the labor now employed is almost entirely Asiatic, they did not consider that the "White Australia" policy would be weakened or imperilled by allowing the industry to continue as at present conducted.