Only one in 5000 Pinctada Maxima oysters will naturally form a pearl - a grain of sand getting inside the shell and the bivalve mollusc secreting nacre to cover it and alleviate the irritation.
But since 1956, when the Japanese pearling house Mikimoto invented it, a small operation to insert a 5mm piece of Mississippi mussel shell into the living oyster has changed that.
Now there's an 85 per cent chance of getting a pearl and the "naughty oysters" that spit the seed out are sent off to the "naughty oyster farm" to make keshi seedless pearls.
In a lively, pacy narrative at Willie Creek Pearl Farm, just north of Broome, Simon Garelli takes us through the history and process of modern pearling. He tells us how the Pinctada Maxima found up here off the Kimberley coast is the biggest in the world and filters 160 litres of water an hour.
How shells over 120mm are still collected by drift divers off Eighty Mile Beach and how, higher up the Dampier Peninsula north of Broome, quite near James Price Point, they can be seeded four times, and how a good technician can insert 600 seeds a day and earn big money.
We had been picked up from the new reception at refurbished Cable Beach Club Resort & Spa, where I am staying, at 10am.
After the coach ride from Broome, including a short time on the red and dusty Cape Leveque Road, and this introduction from Simon, we are in a boat on Willie Creek, with guide and driver Gary Amos.
Skipper Steve Hegney shows us how the oyster shells, by now hung in "packs" from longlines and turned by the tide, are cleaned. For soft tissue, barnacles and other nasties will latch on to the shell, bore into it and can affect the quality of the pearl. The farm has 280,000 shells and backpackers are paid $160 a day to clean 3000 to 5000 shells a day.
After lunch of chicken or fish and salad, there is the treat of a lap in a Robinson R44 helicopter to see the creek and coast from the air. Willie Creek is at the northern end of Cable Beach, and to the south we look down the azure water and white sand all the way to Gantheaume Point, and to the north up the splendid coast to James Price Point.
And beneath us, at the mouth of Willie Creek, is the sand island on which photographs of Elle Macpherson were once shot.
The Willie Creek Pearl Farm tour is a good day-trip from Broome.
- fact file *
·Willie Creek Pearl Farm tour:
The coach tour leaves accommodation in Broome around 10am and returns around 3pm and is $95 for adults, $80 for concessions, $50 for children aged 6-16 and free for children under 5. A family (2+2) is $240.
The helicopter flight is $60 per person.
williecreekpearls.com.au and 9192 0000
·Cable Beach Club Resort & Spa:
Garden View rooms are $349 a night from now until October 14. There are many other room options, including family bungalows and luxury suites with butlers.
cablebeachclub.com and 1800 199 099