Greek-Australian Paspaley Family Celebrates One Century as the “Kings of Pearls”

Greek-Australian pearl baron Nicholas Paspaley Jr.

This year, Australia’s luxury pearl brand Paspaley celebrates a century since its founder, Theodosis Paspaley, landed on Australian shores and began building the country’s foremost pearling company.

The Paspalis family migrated from Greece to Australian shores in 1919, leaving the remote yet beautiful Kastellorizo Island, located just off the coast of Turkey, and settling in Cossack, Western Australia.

At that time, Australia’s north coast was actually the world’s richest area for the harvesting of natural pearls. The Paspalis family found themselves among the few Europeans living in the area among mostly Aboriginal inhabitants and a few Asian pearl divers.

Already very familiar with such treasures of the sea from their homeland, Paspalis, with a great deal of help from his own family, built a fleet that would allow him to found an Australian pearl empire.

In the 1930s, his son, 19-year-old Nicholas Paspalis Sr., bought his very first “Pearling lugger” boat, and he dove for natural pearls, as well as for mother-of-pearl, or abalone, shells. At the time, the Australian cities of Broome, Cossack and Darwin were the world’s most significant pearling ports.

The 80 Mile Beach and Broome areas accounted for 75 percent of the world’s mother-of-pearl production, with over 400 vessels collecting up to 2,000 tons of abalone shells per year at the time.

After the Port Hedland area became less profitable due to the exhaustion of the abalone and pearl fields, Paspalis moved to the uncharted waters of Darwin. There, he was able to increase his fleet to a total of five pearling ships.

It was also in Darwin that Nicholas Paspalis changed the family name to Paspaley, and then established the Paspaley Pearling Company.

After the Second World War broke out, the Australian government impounded and then destroyed all the pearling luggers in North Australia in order to keep them away from Japanese invaders.

After the war, Paspaley was able to purchase four luggers which had been abandoned in Darwin during the war but had somehow escaped the government’s scrapping process. He was then able to resume his beloved pursuit of pearling in the nearby crystal-clear waters.

However, the invention of the plastic button in the mid 1950s reduced the great demand for mother-of-pearl shells, and this development literally destroyed the ancient practice and business of harvesting abalone, almost overnight.

But this sudden turn of events did not deter Paspaley. Inspired by the success of the booming Japanese “Akoya” cultured pearl industry, he took advantage of North Australia’s abundant and superior beds of South Sea pearl oysters, aiming to cultivate the world’s largest and most valuable cultured pearl – the cultured South Sea pearl.

Pearling entrepreneur Nicholas Paspaley Sr. posing with other pearling workers and his sister Mary, circa 1937

Paspaley negotiated a joint venture with the Kuribayashi family of Japan, employing the same Iwasaki/Mitsubishi experts who had pioneered cultured pearl projects before the war.

The Kuribayashi family itself had no pearl farming experience of their own, but were the owners of the Japanese pearling fleet which traveled from Japan each year, diving for abalone shells and pearls off the North Australian coast.

The Australian government soon authorized 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 the Paspaley Pearling Company.

In 1989, with Nick Paspaley Jr. now at the helm of the firm, the two projects were merged under the name of the Paspaley Pearling Company.

By the 1970s, cultured South Sea pearls had become known simply as “South Sea Pearls.” They were of such quality that they established their own distinct premier category of cultured pearls, dominating the worldwide pearl jewelry market.

Soon, South Sea pearl prices were literally hundreds of times higher than those of Japan’s famed Akoya cultured pearls.

Nicholas Paspaley Sr. had managed something that to others might have seemed impossible: he created cultured pearls of the same quality as natural South Sea pearls – the most beautiful and most valuable of all natural pearls.

In recognition of his achievements, Paspaley was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1982 for his work in the pearling industry and his contributions to the Australian business world as well as for his community service.

The Greek-Australian was also awarded a Paul Harris Fellowship for his services to the community through the Rotary International organization.

Nicholas Paspaley Sr. died in 1984, after he had dedicated his entire life to the pearling industry, fulfilling his vision to create outstanding cultured pearls. At the same time, he contributed greatly to the overall social and economic development of Darwin.

Nick Paspaley Jr. had joined the Paspaley Pearling Company in 1969 after graduating from Sydney University with a Bachelor of Economics degree. He has spent his entire life working with his father and helping make the dreams of his Greek-Australian immigrant family come true.

In 1999 he was appointed Companion of the Order of Australia for his services to Australia’s export industry. He was also instrumental in the establishment of the South Sea Pearl Consortium, a non-profit organization committed to promoting and protecting the legal identity and unique characteristics of the South Sea Pearl.

Today, the Paspaley Pearling Company is known as Australia’s largest and oldest pearling company, supplying South Sea pearls to the luxury jewelry industry. The extremely successful Greek-Australian family company has now diversified into real estate and other business ventures as well.