10/12/2009 - 00:00

Passion for pearls

10/12/2009 - 00:00


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Retailing is replacing production as the place to make money from pearls.

DURING the past 16 years, Broome-based Willie Creek Pearls has grown from a pearl farmer and small-time tour operator into one of the town’s top destinations with an expanding retail business.

And despite luxury brands such as Paspaley, Linneys and Kailis being significant competitors, Willie Creek has formed relationships with these outfits to raise the profile of pearl jewellery.

Willie Creek Pearls chief executive Tony Maio says the key to his business, and all pearl retailers, is passion.

“It’s not just about having a jewellery shop and selling it, it’s the passion about the production of the product, the beauty, and I think the major players feel the same,” he says.

“There are 20 or so pearl retailers in Broome and we provide a service for every one; we teach the tourists about pearls, which benefits everyone in town.

“We have very good associations with the major players as we provide a service to them, and whether people buy from us or from them (competitors) it’s up to them (customers), but what we do is explain what to look for in a pearl when buying it and that’s all part of the tour.”

Established by Clipper Pearls back in 1991, Willie Creek Pearls was bought in 1994 by South West wheat and sheep farmers, the Banfield family, when it was a small pearl production facility with limited tourism activities.

Patriarch Don Banfield was originally lured to Broome by Lord Alistair McAlpine, the man responsible for establishing the Cable Beach Club, to partner in the purchase of Broome Coachlines.

Trips to Willie Creek Pearl Farm, 38 kilometres outside of Broome, were a popular aspect of the Banfield’s bus tours, which led sons, Darren and Robert and their father and mother, Velda, to buy the farm with the aim of enhancing tour experiences.

Mr Maio says the company started introducing jewellery following the acquisition.

“In March 1994, retail wasn’t the main focus, it was giving people an understanding about pearls,” Mr Maio told Business Class.

“Retail started off with the small shop at the farm, and at end of 1994 we opened another shop at Cable Beach.”

But retailing presented significant challenges in terms of industry knowledge and the product’s perception.

“People used to consider pearls to be grandma jewellery, so there weren’t that many people buying them,” Mr Maio says.

“And not knowing anything about jewellery and relying on third parties to learn the ropes was probably the hardest part, so it took us several years to learn.”

Retailing quickly eclipsed the tourism side of the business, which led to a third store in 2003, and by 2007 there were six outlets including the Pearl Luggers business and shopfront in Broome (acquired in 2006) plus outlets in Hillarys and Melbourne.

And it’s not over yet for the multi-million dollar award winning company, which is in line for WA Tourism Awards Hall of Fame honours after wining the same three categories for three consecutive years.

“We’d like to expand the group with additional stores in Australia, and possibly look at some overseas expansion in due course,” Mr Maio says.

“Diamonds are a girl’s best friend today, we want to make pearls a girl’s best friend over the next few years.”



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