The Beginning of Pearl Farming near Empire Bay

In the waters near Empire Bay, over 20 years ago, four oyster farmers changed the face of the Australian pearl industry, by successfully cultivating Akoya pearls. The Australian cultured pearl industry is predominantly located in WA and NT, but the local oyster farmers put the Central Coast on the industry map.

Late 1990s, local oyster farmers Denis Paterson and Ian Crisp were intrigued by these small strange soft shell creatures they were finding on their oyster frames. The shells were too soft and fragile for commercial use. Mentioning these shells to the local Fisheries Inspectors the shells were identified as the Akoya oyster, the same oyster the Japanese were trying to grow in Port Stephens for their cultured pearl industry, but with no success. Denis and Ian had discovered these naturally occurring Akoya oysters in Brisbane Waters and decided to give the cultured pearl industry a go.

Denis Paterson and wife Val have been Empire Bay residents for the past 50 years. Looking for a “sea change”, Denis and Val moved from Sydney to Empire Bay in 1971. Then in 1975 purchased oyster leases from Ernie Adams.

The Broken Bay Pearls company was formed in 2003 by Ian Crisp, Denis Paterson, and two other oyster farmers, Peter Clift and Roger Clarke. The company employed an ex-Port Stephens pearl technician and contracted a Japanese pearl farmer to come over and show them how best to set up an Akoya farm.

The Brisbane Water estuary is one of the few places in NSW where pearls can be grown. The degree of salinity in the water is one of the most important factors. As Ian Crisp told the Daily Telegraph, “The estuary has very little catchment, so we don’t get heavy influxes of freshwater when it rains ...that is the problem with most of the other estuaries in NSW... they might be great for other kinds of oysters that are freshwater tolerant, but not for these pearl oysters.”

“Cultivating pearls is a time-consuming process,” explains Denis. “It generally takes two years to grow the oyster before it can be seeded and then another 18 months to two years to grow the pearl and be ready for harvesting. From there, it can be another year for the pearls to be sorted and graded ready for sale.”

The seed is a 3mm-6mm bead of finely crushed Mississippi mud oyster shell that is inserted by experienced local technicians.

By 2011, the farmers harvested their fourth crop and collected between 10,000 – 20,000 pearls.

The Broken Bay Pearl company is now producing world class Akoya pearls with the natural colours and lustra that are superior to that of many pearls from Asia, which have been bleached or artificially coloured.

In 2015, Denis retired and sold the Broken Bay Pearls company to the WA company Pearls of Australia. Today, under the guidance of James Brown (3rd generation pearl farmer) the future of the locally grown Broken Bay Pearl company seems secure. We should be grateful for the Brown’s as they kept the business Australian owned, and all the locals got to keep their jobs.

From the leases near Empire Bay, and a tiny oyster shed near St Huberts Island, some of the best cultured pearls in the world are being produced.

Source: Interview with Denis Paterson; Newcastle Herald June 2011;

Jewellery World January 2011; Daily Telegraph February 2018                                           

By Robert Thompson