(ad- hosted) The name of the small town of Mooney Mooney just outside of Sydney might conjure up the image of bright white globes, but at its latest attraction – the Broken Bay Pearl Farm Tour, the circles aren’t glowing in the sky – but growing under the sea.
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The Broken Bay Pearl Farm is the first pearl farm in Sydney so I was super excited when the team there invited me to come and have a look around.
I”m not a jewellery person, but I was intrigued.
Pearls to me say white beaches, palm trees, guys with knives in their mouths diving to the bottom of the ocean to impress beautiful ladies (I’ve watched too many movies haven’t I?) – I wanted to know how all of this was happening a short train ride from my house and I hadn’t spotted it yet – I mean, you’d think guys with knives in their teeth handing out precious jewels might make the news!
I got on the train at Sydney’s Central station – and an hour later got off in oyster country. You see while the pearl farm might only have been here 7-8 years, rock oysters have been farmed around here for many, many years.
The new Broken Bay Shellar Door, where the Broken Bay Pearl Farm Tour begins, is located in an old rock oyster shed – and with its industrial corrugated outside and rough gravel driveway, first impression is more bait shop than priceless jewel emporium, but inside is a different story.
Piles of gleaning white pearl shells sit in old rock oyster shell baskets (Sydney is actually built on slurry made from burnt rock oyster shells), old pictures showing years of pearl farming tradition decorate the walls and the doors to the small screening room are made from old oyster trays. It’s steeped in history and tradition, and then, in carefully lit cabinets toward the back of the room, you find the pearls. Gleaming creamy white and mounted in necklaces, brooches and bracelets.
If you are a jewellery person the temptation to get a little bit spendy could be strong at this point but wait…
We’re not here to shop – we’re here to learn about pearl farming – and how, it began in Sydney – so, before you get your purse out, it’s time to head into the snuggly cinema room (which is located in what used to be the rock oyster purification tank) for a short history lesson.
How Did the Broken Bay Pearl Farm Start
It’s all down to the Brown family, and their company started back in the 1950s by founder Dean Brown, now run by his grandson, James
These guys are no strangers to pearl farming in Australia. They also own the famous Cygnet Bay Pearls out in Western Australia. With giant shells and large gems, the pearls produced in WA are show stoppers – in fact, they once found one 22.24mm in diameter. That’s pretty big in pearl world!
The pearls in Sydney differ from those made in Western Australia.
Known as Akoya Pearls, they are smaller than WA pearls, but because they also take longer to grow, the coating that gives pearls their gleam is much thicker. In fact, the ones grown in Sydney such a thick coating their thought to be the best in the world.
At the start of the pearl farm tour, you’ll learn how Dean Brown ended up cultivating pearls in WA – and heaps of other cool information about pearls.
Then, once your background lesson is over it’s time to get on the water – and head out, by boat, to the pearl farms located in the middle of the Hawkesbury River.
Lazing About on the River
Even though the day I went it was cold and rainy, it’s beautiful up here
Coves and inlets jut into the water from forested hills. If your image of Australia is all red earth and dust, this will change your mind as you sail past bridges, stone cliffs and tiny islands that are home to a handful of people, all lined with thick green trees.
Even Captain Cook didn’t find this place when he first mapped Australia – he found the area, but didn’t realise that the mouth of the river was here. Sydney might have looked very different if he had.
If you’re lucky, you’ll spot some of the wildlife like turtles and pelicans that make the super clean waters around here their home – and you’ll also discover why that clean saltwater is also the perfect environment for pearls.
You see pearls need a few things to grow – water, in this case, saltwater (although you get freshwater pearls) but also algae that the oysters in which pearls grow eat and seagrass which the waters around the here are full of
Temperature is also important. The hotter the water the bigger the pearl – but too cold means no pearl at all. The subtropical waters in this area are perfect for the cultivation of the smaller Akoya pearls.
The Big Reveal
Then, you collect some shells -and it’s time for the exciting bit….will your guide uncover a pearl?
On the day we went, it was a bit cold on the boat to do the pearl opening on the water (bring a jumper unless it’s a very hot day) so we returned back to the Shellar Door, where our guide Chris – who, fact fans, also played Curly in the classic Aussie film The Man From Snowy River, got his shucking knife out.
Prising open the shell, he starts to dig around in the oyster flesh – but nothing is to be found. This is normal – naturally, only one in every 10-20,000 pearls ever actually produces a pearl. I’m wondering if I might be here a while!
The next shell opened though produces its prize – the pretty pearl below.
The fact that we got so lucky is that the pearls at Broken Bay are what’s known as cultured pearls.
You’ll learn all about the process on the tour, so I won’t go into it all here otherwise it’ll spoil all the surprises, but it’s not an easy process.
It takes two years for an oyster to mature enough to be ready for seeding and a further two years for any pearl to form. Once inside the oyster, the pearl farmers have no idea what’s actually growing – or if a pearl is going to form at all. And those that do are not all formed equally…
All The Shiny Things
Next stop on your tour therefore is a trip to the grading room where you learn how to pick a good pearl.
Jewellery buffs will really enjoy this part of the tour as you discover the seven virtues of the Broken Bay pearls. All pearls have five virtues, but these ones have two extra, and other fun facts like why necklaces with pearls all the same size and colour are so expensive.
The Broken Bay Pearl Farm Tour is a great half a day out. I enjoyed it without being a pearl jewellery fan – and if you any kind of love of jewellery you’ll find it fascinating – and, yes, if you want to buy something afterwards, the Shellar Door Shop is waiting to help.
How to Get to the Broken Bay Shellar Door
The shed is located at Mooney Mooney in the Hawkesbury River area of New South Wales.
It’s just over an hour’s drive from Sydney – this makes it the perfect halfway stop if you’re driving for a weekend on the Central Coast. The address is 12 Kowan Street, Mooney Mooney – but if you want to do the tour don’t just turn up, you need to book in advance.
You can also get here by train to Hawkesbury River station which is about a 50-minute ride from Sydney’s Central Station (it’s covered by the Sydney Opal Card), you’ll then need to make your way to the Shellar Door.
If you time it right there is a bus that does this – the 592 but check the timetable carefully so you tie in your train, your tour and the bus as it’s not that frequent. Or give the Shellar Door a call when you book the tour. They can pick up people booked on the pearl farm tour if arranged in advance.
How to Book The Broken Bay Pearl Farm Tour
You can book the tour directly with the Shellar Door, they offer one and two hour tours plus a couple of other experiences.
If you’re looking for the ultimate experience you can also book a tour that offers the tour of the pearl farm, lunch including champagne and oysters – and, you get to take home the pearl you find in your oyster.
You can also arrive at the Shellar Door via seaplane from Sydney Seaplanes.
What Else is Nearby
A short walk from the Pearl Farm takes you to the Hawkesbury River Oyster Shed which gives you the chance to feast on oysters – and other seafood – by the water.
The shed is open Friday – Saturday 10-5 pm – you might need to book a set seating time (depending on when you read this) so do just check everything before you go.
Also note, It’s BYO beer and wine if you want a drink with your lunch.
Another fun option is to visit the Floating Oyster Wine Bar which is moored close to Hawkesbury Station.
This offers some great deals on oyster platters with wine.
Or Cakes, Pies and Other Goodies
The small town of Brooklyn where you get off the train is home to a number of cafes, fish and chip stalls and oyster shacks where you can grab some food before or after your tour.
If you want waterfront dining, the check out the King Tide cafe – which offer breakfast and lunch (they also do really good cakes).
For lunch, we went to Homer’s Kitchen which did a delicious pie and salad – just enough so I didn’t fall asleep on the train home!
Join the Mail Delivery
Brooklyn is also home to The Riverboat Postman. A lot of the houses around here are only reachable by boat – and that’s also how their letters and parcels arrive. You can take trips on the Riverboat Postman on weekdays.
Of, if you already think that a trip on the Riverboat Postman sounds like a fun way to spend half a day, click here to check the current details.
Hire a Kayak
If your time on the pearl farm boat wasn’t quite enough time on the water, you can also hire kayaks.
Who Writes Differentville?
My name is Helen Foster and I’m a journalist and author living in Sydney.
My travel articles have been published in titles including The Australian, Body & Soul at the Sunday Telegraph, RAC Horizons, Jetstar magazine and more.
I like the weird, the wonderful and anything that makes me jump and down with glee like I’m about three. That’s what you’ll find here.