Early years in pearling were magical, says Patricia Kailis


Pearl Diver
Dec 7, 2006
?When I was 21, I was given almost the obligatory strand of pearls which I now know were Akoya for my 21st birthday which was the sort of thing that happened in those days,? she says.

?I?ve always loved pearls, before and since then.?

Dr Kailis, 80, still treasures the strand, but nowadays prefers to wear the pearls from WA?s north that she and her late husband Michael later became known for.

The couple, founders of the MG Kailis seafood empire, are considered pioneers of WA?s modern day pearling industry.

Dr Kailis has fond memories of the times she spent at their pearl farm in Roebuck Bay off Broome. She says watching pearls being brought in from a harvest is a magical experience.
?I used to always go up for the harvest and stay up there and be out on the mother ship when they were harvesting,? she says.

?That?s a wonderful experience to see them open up a shell and just see this white shiny thing there and it comes out and it?s a lustrous pearl, it?s akin to seeing a baby being born. It?s very emotional.

?Some were very big. Some had beautiful lustre. Some had interesting shapes. They were baroque pearls and you could see potential pieces of jewellery being made out of them.

?When you see a pearl you love, you love it and that?s it. I say when you see the right pearl it talks to you.?

Dr Kailis admits that when she and her husband moved into pearling in the 70s they knew very little about running a pearl farm. Which worked in their favour.
?Broome was absolutely a closed shop on pearling,? she says. ?We had a friend who was a jeweller who introduced us to these guys who had experience on pearl farms and they wanted to start a pearl farm.

?Michael came home one night and he said ?these guys don?t really know how to set up a pearl farm. They might know how to grow pearls. Where do we start??

?I said ?OK, back to first principles. Where do you find pearls? In the pearl shell. Where do you find pearl shells? On the bottom of the ocean?.

?I said ?Why are they growing pearls in rafts on the surface of the ocean? So Michael said ?We?re going to start a pearl farm on the bottom of the ocean where they are found naturally?, and so we did.

?The ones from the bottom of the ocean were beautiful.?
Other pearl farms quickly copied the Kailis? decision to farm their oysters on the sea bed. Then when disease spread through the WA industry in the late 70s and threatened to wipe out many operators, Dr Kailis again called on her common sense ? and her skills as an accomplished medical doctor.

She introduced surgical-style standards for the way the oysters were implanted with seed.

?Everyone thought it must be a virus and they were looking for a mysterious virus, including our Fisheries Department,? she says. ?We?d sent some pearls to Murdoch University and they had a look at them and said there was no evidence of virus but the shells were all teaming with bacteria that are normally found in the shell, in all sea bivalves naturally, but not in these amounts.

?Michael said ?You?d better get up there and do something?.
?I said ?If you?ve got an epidemic you don?t have to actually identify the organism of the epidemic, there are certain rules you can follow to isolate and minimise the disease?.

?So I went up. I got up on the raft where they were working and said ?OK, get the cigarette butts, the Coca Cola cans, the lunch scraps off the operating table, which was a big slab of ply.

?I said ?Get a stainless steel top?. They said it?s expensive. I said ?Yes I know but you?d better do it. In the meantime scrub down every night with disinfectant.

?I said ?Right, you?ve got to be clean, you don?t operate on a sick oyster and then go and operate on a healthy one. And stop stressing them out. Don?t operate in too hot weather, too cold weather, don?t leave the shells too long out of the water, clean your instruments in something?.

?I put my foot down on hygiene and animal husbandry measures. In two years we had hardly any disease. Disease had gone from our pearl farms.?

A shed in Dampier Terrace in Broome became the Kailis? first pearl jewellery shop.

Now, more than four decades later, Kailis jewellery is housed in more illustrious settings. The family no longer farm pearls (they stopped in 2009), but the jewellery they chose to concentrate on is sold around Australia, including at their own stores in Broome, Fremantle and Kings Street, and overseas.

Singer Natalie Imbruglia, the brand?s ambassador, will be in Perth in October to launch a much-anticipated new collection, the brand?s first for several years.

Dr Kailis, who often worked behind the counter of the Fremantle shop because she enjoyed it, says even after all these years a beautiful pearl can still take her breath away. She favours the rose pearls which have a slight pink tinge.

Pearls have also become synonymous with who she is.

?If I don?t wear them people wonder what?s going on,? she says. ?I?ve got beautiful other jewellery. I?ve got diamonds and a beautiful set of emeralds and I love them, but if I put them on and go out at night they say ?oh, you haven?t got your pearls on tonight?.?

The Kailis's are nice people with quite a history in pearls