Freshwater pearl cultivation dates back as far as the thirteenth century in China, where mabe pearls in the shape of Buddha were produced. Foreign objects were inserted between the outer skin layer (mantle) and the shell of the mollusc would coat it with nacre thus creating a blister pearl.
Kokichi Mikimoto, the son of a noodle shop owner in Japan, first inspired by an exhibition of pearls in Japan in 1878 began to experiment with ways to produce pearls. He adapted the method from China to culture blister pearls in large quantities in the 1890s using the Pinctada fucata oyster and in 1896 he was the first person to be granted a patent.
Mikimoto’s love and passion for pearls drove his commercial spirit and in 1899 he opened his first shop in the Ginza area of Tokyo selling these mabe pearls. However the demand for blister pearls was not enough to sustain the industry. Mikimoto was determined that his journey with pearls wasn’t over and he searched for the answer to the most important question of all; how do I culture pearls?
(Lustrous Cultured Pearls above-Image Courtesy of Jewellery Imaging)
The beginnings of the Cultured Pearl
Finally in 1905 after years of experimenting – he did just that and succeeded to grow a whole pearl. However, while Mikimoto was profiting from his Mabe pearls he didn’t pay much attention to two bright Japanese wannabees doing the same thing. A humble Japanese carpenter, named Tatsuhei Mise and a Japanese researcher, Tokichi Nishikawa had beaten Mikimoto to it.
They both developed the same cultivation method and Mise and Nishikawa discovered that to produce a round pearl three key elements were needed- the nucleus needed to be inserted within the body of the oyster together with a piece of nacre secreting mantle tissue. This piece of nacre secreting tissue ensures the formation of a pearl sac around the nucleus so that the nacre will be deposited. In 1907 they both realised their dream and were awarded their licenses from the Japanese government.
Mikimoto -Pearl Pioneer
Although Mikimoto was not the first to produce a round cultured pearl, interestingly yet not surprisingly he is still considered to be the “Pearl King”, (a phrase coined by a newspaper reporter in the 1920s).
Mikimoto was a resilient man with an incredible vision. He knew that the warm waters along the southern coast of Japan were the ideal conditions for pearl farming. He first began farming akoya pearls along the 1000 km coastline of the Mie Prefecture and akoya cultured pearl farms still thrive there today.
In 1926 the term “cultured pearl “was first born when the First International Jewellers’ Congress adopted the term. The term stuck.
By 1938, Mikimoto had grown his enterprise to 360 pearl farms in Japan, reaching a production peak of nearly 11,000,000 pearls (Pearls as One, 2016).
Mikimoto remained devoted to the development of the cultured pearl industry until his death in 1954. It was his dedication and the techniques of Mise and Nishikawa that we owe the success of the cultured pearl industry today.
Mikimotos’ dream was to “adorn the necks of all women around the world with pearls”.
And he succeeded in adorning the necks of some of the most beautiful and famous women in the world. In 1954 Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio travelled to Japan for their honeymoon, where Joe DiMaggio presented Marilyn with a Mikimoto pearl necklace. Mikimoto would be a very proud man today.
Since the early days of pearl cultivation and the huge rise in global pearl production in China in the 1960s , Australia and South East Asia, pearls no longer remain the gem of the rich and famous .
Today, however, as new techniques emerge and China takes over survival for the next generation Japanese akoya pearl farmer means the need to be even more innovative and technically savvy if they are to compete with an ever growing competitive market.