Three generations of Robert Banfield’s family work to tell the story of Broome’s maritime and pearling history through their business, Willie Creek Pearls.
The story of Broome is inextricably entwined with the South Sea pearl, layers of history one on top of the other like the fine coatings of nacre that form the jewels themselves. It’s an apt metaphor for the Banfield family’s relationship with the remote town. “Broome has been our life for more than 30 years,” says Robert Banfield, chairman of Willie Creek Pearls.
Banfield’s parents, Don and Valda, brought their four children to Broome from Perth in 1989 but it wasn’t until 1994, when the family took over Willie Creek Pearls, that they found firm footing. Despite weathering storms both literal (tropical cyclones are a part of life) and figurative (Don’s untimely death at 51), Banfield says they wouldn’t be anywhere else. “It’s a completely different world up here. Our business typifies what makes Broome and its pearling heritage so special,” he says.
Located 38 kilometres from Broome, Willie Creek is a tidal estuary and home to barramundi, brolgas and the odd saltwater croc. Its nutrient-rich waters also make it the chosen locale for the pinctada maxima oyster, in which the best cultured South Sea pearls in the world are produced. After a two-year wait, the result is a pearl of unequalled lustre and quality. The pearls are generally between 9mm and 16mm but Willie Creek recently harvested a 19.7mm pearl with a value of $75,000.
With three generations of Banfields in the business, Willie Creek Pearls has become a sustainable operation that encompasses all aspects of Broome’s pearl industry: farming the gems, leading tours of historical sites and creating stunning jewellery. “We love what we do,” says Banfield.
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Practice makes perfect: You must be prepared to take a risk in a regional town, says Robert Banfield. “Before we found Willie Creek Pearls, we had a dabble at most things, including hire cars, taxis, restaurants, a bus service and property development.”
Keep it in the family: The Banfields have the mentality of not being too reliant on others. “We now have a vertically integrated business model that includes growing our pearls, making them into quality jewellery and educating our customers on tours.”