38. Natural Pearls: A massive Yolngu business opportunity

Nikunu Yunupingu and Richard Trudgen talk about the business opportunities that exist for Yolngu in natural pearling in Arnhem Land.

Nikunu explains that Yolngu do not understand the value of pearls. We did in the past through the Macassan’s but we don’t know where the pearls went to, what they were used for, and why other people thought they were valuable.  Today we still don’t understand why people want them. Currently when Yolngu find natural pearls they throw them away or give them to the children to play with.

Richard explains the history of natural pearls in the region, saying that in the past Yolngu grew, seeded and traded large quantities with the Macassan traders. This all ceased when the South Australian government stopped the Macassan trade in 1906. After this the British-owned, Malay-crewed boats moved in along the coast, stealing pearls from the Yolngu estates. So Yolngu have had no one to sell their pearls to and so they have lost all their value. In more recent times cultured pearls became valuable, however natural pearls are rare, so they are in demand again. Now natural pearls can be worth anything from a few dollars to many thousands of dollars, depending on their size, weight and colour.

It’s noted that Yolngu are missing out on a real opportunity. Nikunu points out that many Yolngu are so dependent on government that they don’t understand the possible business opportunities. He asks if Yolngu had pearls if they could get help selling them and ways of selling are explored.  It’s explained that there are various markets for pearls, including overseas markets, and for jewellery. Other aspects of pearling are discussed including the importance of finding out the traditional knowledge from Elders with regards to growing and seeding. The need to be careful when doing business is also talked about.


There are 4 Stories in this podcast. Please see time stamps below:

  • Natural Pearls. Yolngu do not know how valuable they are. – 00:00
  • Natural Pearls. Yolngu do not know where their value comes from. – 9.44
  • Natural Pearls. Need to get all info from the Elders – 17.59
  • Why are pearls seen as valuable by Balanda? – 25.14
Dhäwu ga ŋorra dhawal mala gammurruw