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South Sea Odyssey

Marilynne Paspaley talks to Neos Kosmos about her family's story, her latest business venture, and the eternal lure of Pinctada Maxima

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Lustre for life: the legendary Nick Paspaley and his crew in the late 1940s. Photo courtesy Paspaley Group.

The pearl is the only gem that is made by a living creature. Every other gem is made by decay, by time, by pressure.
19 Jul 2013

On a June evening in Melbourne, Paspaley's bespoke shop at the 'Paris end' of Collins Street is buzzing. Aproned waiters weave through the crowd with trays of Veuve Cliquot and canapes; the evening's guest presenter Marilynne Paspaley, who knows a thing or two about giving a performance, is about to begin.

The youngest daughter of legendary pearling pioneer Nicholas Paspaley is here to share her insights, not just into one of the great Greek Australian business stories, but what created, and sustains to this day, the success of the Paspaley brand.

Nicholas Paspaley carved out a livelihood in northern Australia that has become part of the story of Australia itself; the young migrant pioneer who became a Master Pearler in search of the most beautiful wild pearls in the world and who later grew those pearls in the pristine waters that he had fished in his youth.

Marilynne obviously still has the same fascination for the pearls that shone so brightly for her father.

"It's called the Pinctada Maxima and it's absolutely magnificent," she says, proudly holding up an example of the large iridescent shell for all to see.
"For two years you have no idea how the pearl is growing inside shell. It's only at harvest time, when you actually take that pearl out of its shell, that you see whether it's been worth it.

"It's a little bit like having children," she adds.

"The pearl is the only gem that is made by a living creature. Every other gem is made by decay, by time, by pressure.
"That's one of the reasons why we find them mesmerising. That is why when you are looking for something you might like, one will speak to you. Not all of them, but one."
Unlike most tellings of her father's story, Marilynne's includes an acknowledgement of the role played by her mother Vivienne in the Paspaley legend - a part Marilynne says she only fully appreciated years later.
"My father had an extraordinary vision, but even his own family thought he was a bit of a dreamer," she says.

"They thought it was impossible, a wild fantasy. My mother came from a comfortable background in Sydney and was the most tremendous support. Every evening, she made sure that everything was just perfect for when he came home, so that he always had a sense of what he had achieved"

Stylish, elegant and full of energy, it was Vivienne Paspaley who enticed architect Harry Seidler to build a new home for the family in Darwin 1958.
Marilynne's later childhood was spent in that house and she has long expressed her admiration for the isolated tropical town that nurtured her and her family's business.

"Growing up [in Darwin] gave me strengths, values and beliefs that I carry with me today in everything I do, no matter where in the world I am," she once told a gathering of Darwin dignitaries.

"School was a melting pot - Australian, Chinese, Greek, Italian, Dutch and Aborigine. No private schools here - everyone in together. Proximity broke down prejudices. Working together built respect."

After her father's death in 1984, Paspaley Pearls was run by her brother Nicholas, now Executive Chairman, and sister Roslynne Bracher.

For twenty years from 1987 Marilynne was Executive Director of Paspaley's retail arm and oversaw the expansion of sales in Australia to new heights.
A former professional actor, she mixed her thespian calling with her business role for a time, until juggling the responsibilities of a young family in the early 1990s made competing careers impossible. The acting skills weren't lost, just reapplied.

"Retail requires honesty and integrity, as does acting," she says. "You always give a better performance if its grounded in something real."

Today she's still a director and shareholder but has no executive role in the Paspaley Group of Companies, the seven business units that continue to propel Paspaley's commercial growth.

In 2009 the torch was handed to a third generation, when Nicholas Paspaley Junior's son James became the Group's Executive Director, with cousins Peter and Michael Bracher, also Executive Directors, overseeing worldwide wholesale distribution.

For the past six years Marilynne's had other fish to fry. Having been honoured with an Order Of Australia in 2008 for her contribution to the marketing and promotion of pearls and Australian designed jewellery, she's ventured out to develop luxury hotels.

Carrying on the connection to the source of her family's fortune - Pinctada Hotels and Resorts (all of which so far, are located in the north of Western Australia) is perhaps Marilynne's boldest venture yet.

Her move into luxury hospitality began in 2007 with the acquisition of an incomplete development in the town of Kununurra in the east Kimberley.
During the same period, Marilynne began the construction of Pinctada Cable Beach Resort and Spa in Broome. Also comprising 72 rooms, Pinctada Cable Beach, completed in 2009, is a full-service hotel and spa, and the first hotel to have been built in Broome in 20 years.

The exclusive 8-room luxury retreat McAlpine House in Broome is the third property under the Pinctada brand.

"The Kimberley is an extraordinary region and I felt it was worthy of a style of hospitality that complemented the nature and uniqueness of the destination," she says.

The hotels have already won numerous prestigious awards. Clearly her move to high-end hospitality is another expression of the Paspaley spirit. "It's very hard to be still," says Marilynne, "it's very hard not to create."

She describes her new role in managing Pinctada Hotels and Resorts as "all consuming", but as a self-confessed workaholic that doesn't worry her in the slightest.

It's grit that creates a pearl, and that's something Marilynne Paspaley's not short of.

*Marilynne Paspaley's Melbourne presentation was organised by Chic Productions/European Women in Business.

Pioneering patriarch - Nicholas Paspaley

In 1919, at four years of age, Nicholas Paspalis left the island of Kastellorizo in a tramp steamer with his family. On arrival in Australia they settled at the ship's first port of call, Cossack in Western Australia.

The Paspalis family were among the few Europeans in the area along with its traditional Aboriginal inhabitants and Japanese pearl divers. Nicholas' father, Theodosis, established a grocery store and bought a share in a pearl lugger, but within five years had died, leaving sons Nicholas and Michael, along with their sister Mary, to pursue their father's fledgling interest in pearling.

At the age of 19, Nicholas was the master of his own lugger, his crew diving for natural pearls and the shell of the Pinctada Maxima pearl-oyster that supplied much of the then insatiable global demand for mother-of-pearl, used in buttons and fashion accessories.

Always looking for greater opportunity, the family moved to Port Hedland and then Broome. But a combination of the worldwide depression of the early 1930s and the war would change Australia's traditional pearling industry forever.

At the outbreak of World War II, the Australian government impounded all pearling luggers in northern Australia, fearing they could be used by the Japanese in an invasion. The industry that had been reliant not just on Japanese divers but Japanese investment and markets would never be the same again.

In 1944 Nicholas married Vivienne Lavinia Barry in Sydney, and two years later took his new bride and their baby Roslynne to Darwin where they established the Paspaley Pearling Company. There he increased his fleet to five ships and became the town's leading pearling master.

The advent of mass-produced plastic buttons by the late 1950s finally put an end to the mother-of-pearl market. As the sea change swept through the pearling industry worldwide, Nick Paspaley turned his attention to the culturing of pearls.

He established the first cultured pearl farm in Australia. Employing Japanese pearl farming methods used to grow the Akoya pearl, the results were at first discouraging.

But through exhaustive tests and research over many seasons, Paspaley and his dedicated team began to hone the art and science of culturing Australia's unique South Sea pearls.

Conditions in northern Australia required a different approach; the delicate silver and gold-lipped pearl-oyster Pinctada Maxima - the largest pearl-oyster in the world - needed to be treated with utmost care for it to grow its exquisite, lustrous pearl.

Paspaley's systems of pearl husbandry involved creating pristine seeding conditions identical to the natural environment, and limiting the oysters' time out of water, achieving higher survival rates and ever larger, more beautiful pearls.

In the 1970s Nick Paspaley Junior, fresh out of Sydney University with an economics degree, joined the family business. Together with his father the company introduced ever more innovative farming and distribution techniques.

Today the Paspaley Group of companies manages 20 pearl farms along a 2,500 km stretch of coastline in northern and western Australia. It operates nine retail stores and a wholesale arm supplies independent retailers and jewellery brands around the world.

In 1982 Nicholas Paspaley Senior was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire for his services to the pearling industry, business and the community. Two years later he died at the age of 71. His wife Vivienne Lavinia Paspaley passed away in 2003 aged 90.

Nicholas Paspaley Junior was awarded The Companion of the Order of Australia in 1999 for his services to Australia's export industry. His sisters Marilynne and Roslynne were made members of The Order of Australia in 2008.

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