Paspaley Pearling Company is the largest and oldest pearling company operating in Australia.
Today, Paspaley operates a variety of businesses, some of which are dedicated to the support of pearling operations; Paspaley is a strong advocate of environmental responsibility within industry.
To this day Paspaley remains a family owned and operated business.
Nicholas Paspaley Senior MBE (1914–1984) fled the Greek island of Castellorizo as a young child with his family (the Paspalis family) during World War I. As refugees, upon arrival in Australia in 1919, the family’s only option was to settle at their ship's first port of call, Cossack on the Indian Ocean coast of Western Australia. At that time, the Australian North Coast was the world’s most important pearling area, with the towns of Broome, Cossack, and Darwin being the world’s leading pearling ports.
Apart from only a few government officials on remote postings, the Paspalis family were among the few Europeans living in the area with the traditional Aboriginal inhabitants and Asian pearl fishermen. Pearling was one of the few viable industries in the area, and although Nicholas’ father, Theodosis Paspalis died in 1924, sons Michael and Nicholas and daughter Mary continued to pursue their father's fledging interest in pearling – all eventually owning their own pearling fleets. Michael and Mary discontinued pearling after WWII.
Nicholas joined the pearling trade at 14 years of age. By 1932, at the age of 19, he was at the helm of his own pearling lugger, diving for natural pearls, and for mother-of-pearl shell that fulfilled a significant portion of the global demand for mother-of-pearl buttons. When Port Hedland began to become less profitable due to the pearl fields in the area being exhausted, Nicholas made the decision to move to the uncharted waters of Darwin. In Darwin, Nicholas increased his pearling fleet to 5 pearling ships and earned respect as Darwin’s leading Pearling Master. It was in Darwin that Nicholas Paspalis changed the family name to Paspaley, and established the Paspaley Pearling Company.
At the outbreak of World War II, the Australian government impounded all pearling luggers in North Australia, including the Paspaley luggers, for fear they could be used by the Japanese army for invasion. The luggers were consequently destroyed on the beaches.
Australia and the advent of pearl culture technology
From the late 1890s-1900’s, British biologist William Saville Kent – who was working for the Australian Fisheries Department on Thursday Island in North Australia - experimented with a new concept of “tissue graft” in pearl oysters. His experiments proved pearls could be cultured by using this unique technique. Nishikawa and Mise visiting from Japan observed these experiments. In 1916, Nishikawa and Mise of Japan, after perfecting this technique, were granted a 20 year patent on the “tissue graft” technology to culture pearls. This technology led to the development of the Japanese Akoya cultured pearl industry. By the mid 1930s the Japanese industry was substantially developed to the extent that the supply of pearls exceeded demand and Japanese culture pearl prices declined.
Mikimoto was extremely successful at promoting the new Japanese cultured pearl to the international jewellery industry. He challenged and won against the French natural pearl dealers in the French Courts who attempted to prevent the Japanese from describing their new cultured pearls as “pearls”. The French Court concluded that cultured pearls were indeed pearls. Mikimoto became the most famous Japanese pearl farmer.
Also in 1916, Baron Iwasaki, a Japanese nobleman and then owner of Mitsubishi, commenced the first South Sea pearl farm project in the Philippines with the new Japanese pearl culture technology. South Sea pearls were the original and ultimate objective of Nishikawa’s and Mise’s technology, but to cultivate South Sea pearls required large sums of money due to the remoteness of suitable farm locations and the cost of south sea pearl oysters. Therefore South Sea pearls were out of reach of the other Japanese pearlers like Mikimoto - who focused on the smaller inexpensive Japanese Akoya pearl oysters.
South Sea pearl oysters were in limited supply in the Philippines, and Iwasaki’s project initially struggled to survive. The project was moved from the Philippines to Indonesia to Palau, and finally imported live pearl oysters from Arnhem Land in North Australia, but continued to be restricted by an inadequate supply of pearl oysters. Australia had the world’s greatest supply of pearl beds of South Sea pearl oysters, however pearl culture was prohibited at that time in Australia by the Australian Government to protect the all-important North Australian natural pearl industry.
In contrast to the booming Japanese pearl culture industry, Iwasaki’s cultured South Sea pearl project faced tremendous difficulties. However, by the early 1940s Iwasaki had a small but steady annual production of cultured South Sea pearls. The pearls achieved high prices on the world pearl market and were in high demand. By 1940 the project was extremely profitable.
World War II ended Baron Iwasaki’s cultured pearl project in the South Seas, and his pearl technicians were interned as Prisoners of War in Prisoner of War camps in Australia.
Post WWII: Paspaley today
After WWII the Japanese Akoya pearl industry was rebuilt in Japan, and exports of Japanese Akoya cultured pearls boomed to international markets. Similarly, post World War II, the Australian mother-of-pearl shell industry also boomed as renewed demand ensured record prices for mother-of-pearl buttons right through to the mid-1950s.
Nicholas Paspaley had purchased four luggers which had been abandoned during the war by the Royal Australian Navy on Darwin's beaches. Once again, after rebuilding the luggers, Nicholas resumed pearling out of Darwin. However, the invention of the plastic button in the mid 1950s reduced demand for mother-of-pearl shell, virtually devastating the industry overnight, with the fleets of pearling luggers abandoned once more on the beaches.
Not to be defeated by this sudden collapse of the industry, Nicholas drew inspiration from the success of the booming Japanese Akoya cultured pearl industry, and sought to resurrect the South Sea pearl project commenced by Baron Iwasaki in 1916 – this time taking advantage of North Australia’s abundant and superior beds of South Sea pearl oysters - with the dream to cultivate the world’s largest and most valuable cultured pearl – the cultured South Sea pearl.
In the early 1950s Nicholas negotiated a joint venture project with the Kuribayashi family of Japan - employing the Iwasaki/Mitsubishi experts who had pioneered the project before the war. Although the Kuribayashi’s had no pearl farming experience, the Kuribayashi family were the owners of the Japanese pearling fleet that travelled from Japan each year, diving for mother-of-pearl shell and pearls off the North Australian coast. Their experience in the pearling industry made them a suitable partner for the project.
The Australian Government subsequently removed the ban on pearl culture activities in Australia, and authorised the establishment of the first two pearl farms in Australia. One at Kuri Bay (named after Kuribayashi), and one at Port Essington. Initially, the Kuri Bay project was controlled by the Kuribayashi family, and the Port Essington project was controlled by Paspaley Pearling Company. Ultimately - In 1989, under the stewardship of Nick Paspaley Jnr., the two projects were merged under the Paspaley Pearling Company banner.
During the 1950s, 1960’s and 1970’s, the Australia pearl farms operated with virtually the same pre-WWII Iwasaki/Mitsubishi technology. Pearl production flourished and increased steadily annually. Cultured South Sea pearls became known simply as “South Sea pearls”. They dominated pearl jewellery markets worldwide, and established a distinct “premier” category of cultured pearls – the “South Sea Pearl”. These pearls had the effect of resurrected the existence once more of important pearl jewellery in leading jewellery houses around the world. South Sea pearl prices were hundreds of times higher than the Japanese Akoya cultured pearl prices.
Nicholas Paspaley had lived to realise his dream of creating cultured pearls of the same quality as his natural South Sea pearls - the most beautiful and most valuable of the “old world” pearls.
In 1982 Nicholas Paspaley was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire for his services to the pearling industry, to business and to community service. He was also awarded a Paul Harris Fellowship for his services to the community through Rotary International. Nicholas Paspaley lived the romantic life of a true adventurer and pioneer. He dedicated his whole life to the pearling industry in the remoteness of North Australia. He died in 1984. Nicholas’s wife Vivienne Lavinia Paspaley (1913-2003) worked with her husband to build the Paspaley Pearling Company and was also a significant figure in the social development of Darwin.
Nick Paspaley Jnr joined the Paspaley Pearling Company in 1969 after graduating from Sydney University as a Bachelor of Economics. Nick worked with his father eventually pioneering modern pearl cultivating techniques that enabled the realisation of his father’s vision.
In 1999 Nick Paspaley Jnr was awarded The Companion in the Order of Australia – Australia’s highest civilian honor – for his services to Australia’s export industry.
Nick Paspaley Jnr was instrumental in the establishment of the South Sea Pearl Consortium – the non-profit organisation committed to promoting and protecting the reputation of the South Sea pearl. Nick is a Board member of CIBJO - The World Jewelry Federation  whose charter is the promotion of ethics and responsibility in the jewelry industry for the protection of consumers, and to foster confidence in the jewelry industry.
Nick is the Chairman of the Paspaley Group of Companies. His son James Paspaley is the Chief Executive Officer of the Paspaley Group of Companies. His nephews Peter Bracher and Michael Bracher oversee the worldwide distribution of the company’s pearls.
Paspaley pearls appear in the collections of retail brands such as Tiffany & Co, Cartier, Harry Winston, Chow Tai Fook, Falconer, and more. In 1992 a single Paspaley strand of 23 pearls set a world record for cultured pearls, selling for US$2.3 million at a Sotheby's Auction in New York. The record still stands today.
Paspaley Pearls today is still a family run and owned business, with offices in Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, and the UAE. Paspaley continues to be a joint venture with its original Japanese joint venture partners. The company operates a pearl retail business, a pearl wholesale business. Pearl production is one business unit of the diversified Paspaley Group of Companies.
The pearls are particularly known for their 'orient', which is the combination of transparent lustre and unique play of colors which is exhibited by pearls with fine quality nacre.
Paspaley operates 20 pearl farms dotted along more than 2,500 kilometres of the remote coastline of North-Western Australia. Pristine environmental conditions are critical for the successful production of pearls. The ‘leave no trace’ environmental policy sets the industry benchmark for environmental standards.
In 2012, the area in which Paspaley operates was designated as a marine wilderness sanctuary. This area, where Paspaley pearl farms have operated for more than 60 years, is still in its pristine condition, and is a breeding ground for humpback whales, spanning over thousands of kilometres of the Kimberly region.
Paspaley Retail & Wholesale
Paspaley operate nine retail stores globally, with a strong presence in Australia – most recently in Crown - Melbourne, Australia; as well as the UAE. Prices range from a few hundred dollars to several millions of dollars per piece of jewelry.
In addition to the retail stores, Paspaley also operates the Paspaley e-boutique (http://www.Paspaley.com/eboutique), designed to provide an immersive online shopping experience with access to a wide selection of Paspaley jewellery in varying price ranges.
Paspaley Pearling Company is the pearling wholesale department of the Paspaley Group of Companies. This department sells Paspaley Australian South Sea pearls to a variety of leading jewellery brands, as well as independent retailers.
Paspaley Group of Companies
The Paspaley Group of Companies has developed a diverse portfolio of business operations, evolving from their pearling background. The primary objective of the Group is in the provision of essential services to pearling operations. Diversification came naturally as the company acquired and developed the infrastructure required to support the growing demands of the pearling industry.
Today, the following businesses operate under Paspaley Group of Companies:
• Paspaley Pearls • Paspaley Pearling Company • Paspaley Pearls Properties • Aviation • Paspaley Pastoral Group • Bunnamagoo Winesu • Pearl Marine Engineering
In April 2012, 22-year-old Jarrod Hampton died in the waters south of Broome working as a diver for Paspaley. Mr. Hampton was an experienced diver with a PADI Advanced Open Water Diver certificate and prior to joining Paspaley, he had recorded more than 600 dives in a variety of conditions including work as a dive instructor. Mr. Hampton is the only work related fatality at the company.
The incident was investigated by WorkSafe WA with the full cooperation of Paspaley. Workplace safety being of paramount importance, the company promptly complied with all the improvement notices that were issued from the investigation. A coronial inquest has now been delayed and is pending a decision from the State Solicitors Office.
- The Brisbane Courier Wednesday 28 May 1924, Pg 16.
- Townsville Daily Bulletin Friday 23 February 1940 pg 2.