So why pearls, “Well”, says Dave, “After having been a fisherman working the notorious Southern Ocean, anyone with romantic notions of life at sea or even sailing there is mad!!”
In recognition of the value of the enterprise in developing a sustainable regional export industry, Dave received a Federal Government grant under the Sustainable Regions Program two and a half years ago which allowed him to make substantial advances in the production of these world class oysters.
Although it is early days in terms of developing sufficient output to sustain a domestic and export market, Dave has already lifted production from 5,000 to 20,000 pearls per year with the eventual aim of being able to produce up to 40,000 pearls per year.
Traditionally the Japanese have dominated the production of akoya pearls but because of the problems with pollution and disease, their production is dropping annually as is the quality of the Japanese pearl.
“We are consistently producing pearls of 10 mm in diameter and our aim is to produce pearls up to 10 to 12 mm which would be the largest of their type in the world,” says Dave. Currently, three different types of oysters are used in the production of these world class pearls – the newly discovered Hervey Bay akoya, the Pinctada maxima or South Sea pearl oyster and the akoya.
Seeding is a process which takes place in late winter, early spring. Dave’s partner Denise was specially trained in Japan to undertake the delicate operation of making an incision in the reproductive sack of the oyster and inserting a nuclei - an 8 mm to 10 mm perfectly round seed made from Mississippi mussel shell and a small piece of selected graft tissue from the mantle of another oyster. A good seeder can do 600 oysters per day and the entire seeding operation takes place each month all year round.
In four week after the seeding takes places, a pearly sac is formed around the nuclei and the oyster commences layering the seed with nacre. The uniqueness of the pristine Hervey Bay environment means that Dave Williams has been able to cultivate pearls in gold, green and silver with outstanding lustre.
So why cultivate pearls? “Wild oysters yield about one pearl per million shells. It would take three tonnes of natural oysters to yield just four or five pearls,” says Dave.
He adds, “It takes about a year for the pearl to develop a 10 mm pearl after seeding with a 1 mm cover but we like to keep the seeded oysters for two years before harvest. We only seed with one big nuclei unlike in Japan where they seed with two smaller nuclei. We are going to try to reseed after one year from operation with the bigger shell to push out bigger akoya pearl.”
So where do these world-class and highly-sought pearls go when they leave the farm? “These pearls are very special and still expensive.” says Dave. “Currently, our focus is on export. Our pearls are in great demand in Asia. Most of our crop currently is exported to fashion jewellers in Japan. We have only one retail outlet in Australia, where these fabulous pearls can be obtained, and that is Haigh’s Jewellers at Hervey Bay. We also have started a pearl farm tour which sells direct to the public which has become very popular.”
Steve and Debbie Haigh have worked with Dave Williams throughout the development stages and now that production is increasing, Steve is confident these huge, home-grown pearls will be in great demand.
Says Steve Haigh, “Most pearls produced elsewhere are bleached and color treated. Hervey Bay pearls, marketed as Fraser Island Pearls, have natural thick nacre and naturally high lustre, which requires us to do nothing more than mount them.”
Pearls are graded by shape, size, lustre, orient or hue and weight. Pearls are measured in half-millimetre increments, in other words 9.5 - 10 mm and so on.
Pearls with pink tints are the most highly sought while pearls with a gold tint are gaining in popularity. The Haighs have set the Fraser Island Pearls with sapphires and diamonds to achieve some spectacular pieces.
To learn more about these pearls and what Steve Haigh describes as the “Cream of the Crop,” contact Haighs Jewellers on 07 4128 3326 or visit their website http://www.haighsjewellers.com.au/