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Three oval pieces of trimmed and polished pearl shell

Date: 1957-1977
Overall: 3 x 35.5 x 20 mm, 4.73 g
Medium: Pearl shell
Credit Line: ANMM Collection Gift from the George Family and Adrian Jackson
Object Name: Trimmed and polished pearl shell
Object No: 00044056

User Terms

    These oval shaped pieces of polished and trimmed pearl shell may have been intended for use as jewellery, which was a natural and popular use of the shell residue from the cultured pearl farm.
    SignificanceDenis George spent many years in New Guinea attempting to establish and develop pearl farming as a local and ongoing industry. During his time there he involved local communities in the endeavour and the various commercial opportunities, such as jewellery making, that were the result.
    HistoryFor thousands of years, coastal Indigenous Australians collected pearl shell by combing the beach while the tide was out, and traded them with inland Aboriginal groups. The European-Australian pearling industry began in the 1850s and by the early 20th century pearlers from north Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and the Torres Strait were supplying 75 per cent of the world's pearl shell. A valuable material before the days of plastic, pearl shell sold for £150 per ton in Sydney in the 1860s.

    The abundant, versatile and decorative mother-of-pearl - the highly polished and shinny inner surface of a mollusc shell - had been used for centuries to make buttons, which were affordable for those with modest budgets. Before the creation of cultured pearls in the early 1900s natural pearls were extremely rare and expensive, and mother-of-pearl was used an inexpensive alternative in a range of jewellery and accessories. It was also used to make buckles, cases and cutlery, and was used as inlay in watches, furniture, ornaments and instruments.

    After World War II the Australian pearl-shell industry suffered a down turn. Over harvesting meant that supply was low, and the development of plastics in the 1950s replaced a number of mother-of-pearl products - particularly buttons. By the 1960s the Torres Strait pearling industry had ceased, however innovations in pearl cultivation technology ensured the Western Australian industry survived. Today, Broome is known as the 'pearl capital' of Australia, and maintains a strong pearl cultivation industry.

    Additional Titles

    Assigned title: Three oval pieces of trimmed and polished pearl shell

    Collection title: Denis George Collection

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