The Birth of the Cultured Pearl
A pursuit into pearls
Brief History of the Father of Pearls
Mikimoto Kokichi was born the son of a noodle maker in Shima, Mie Prefecture, Japan, in 1858. He developed a fascination with pearls at a young age after watching the smiling faces of the local divers coming home every day with their prizes from the sea. By the age of 13, Mikimoto was selling vegetables to help his family make ends meet with no idea that his passion for pearls would soon blossom into a lifelong pursuit of perfection. Kokichi was awarded two patents for his work before joining forces with collaborators to market a viable and successful product on an international level. His devotion to pearl culture, and the significant impact his research had on the industry of cultured pearls, has earned him numerous honors for lifetime achievements during his life and posthumously. While the claim to the invention of the modern cultured pearl has some credible competition, the progress that Mikimoto Kokichi made during his time working with Japanese akoya pearls is undeniable.
A caring Father grew his own oysters
The difficult life of an oyster pioneer
In 1888, Mikimoto was granted a loan to open an oyster farm where he and his wife began the long and disappointing process of culturing hemispherical pearls. The next five years were full of failures and put the family on the brink of bankruptcy. A breakthrough finally came in 1893 when Kokichi succeeded in producing a hemispherical pearl in his Ago Bay farm. The news of his achievement traveled fast and he soon published his work at a convention in Norway.
Failures rewarded with successes
Mikimoto returned to Japan as a hero to some and a fraud to others. He was perpetually defending his cultured pearls against accusations of his not being ‘real’ pearls, offering scientific evidence to support his claim. Obstinate critics refused to acknowledge his proof, however, while others soon embraced his methods as legitimate and his results of the highest quality. Mikimoto’s self-titled company joined forces with Tatsushi Mise and Tokishi Mishikawa in order to use their patented nucleus insertion method. In 1909, the Mikimoto Company achieved the production of completely spherical cultured pearls that could not be distinguished from those occurring naturally. It was not until the 1920’s that their quality was perfected for use in top-of-the-line jewelry and other retail applications.
There is no such thing as a Fake pearl
What makes a pearl valuable
A pearl gets its luster and elegant beauty from a fine layer of material known as nacre, which is produced by particular mollusks. A cultured pearl is the product of a nucleus being inserted into the gonad or the mantle tissue of a mollusk.
For saltwater scenarios the nucleus typically consists of a mother-of-pearl bead, while the freshwater method perfected by Mikimoto avoids the reproductive organs altogether, inserting donor tissue rather than a solid nucleus, into the mantle tissue of the farm subject. The results are very different for each application and the pearls that are produced have very particular markets. The average time of incubation is between 1-4 years, however, a long period of incubation does not guarantee a high-quality pearl. Out of hundreds of pearls harvested at a single time, no more than a handful may meet or exceed the strict standards of the luxury pearl trade.
Open ocean diving is dangerous and unpredictable
Saltwater Oysters vs Fresh
Characteristics vary greatly between various species of mullusk; therefore, different approaches are necessary for working successful pearl cultivation. Some saltwater mollusks may only incubate once in their lives. Their's is a life that is committed to the production of a single round of jewels before dying tragically at the first harvest. While these only live to produce one cycle, they may be nucleated more than once per incubation period, typically getting one pearl per nucleus. Other saltwater oysters are capable of producing only one pearl at a time but live to repeat the process several times before being reintroduced to the wild in order to spread their good genes.
Freshwater mollusks are unique because the mantle tissues on either side of the valve are large and fleshy. This permits cultivators to insert as many as 32 donor mantle tissue pieces into each oyster during a given incubation period. Although the surplus of freshwater pearls per mollusk decreases their value compared to that of saltwater versions, the freshwater pearl sac will absorb the donor mantle piece during incubation. The result of this process is a pearl made of 100% nacre. This version is more numerous but it adds a further window into nature’s wondrous ability to create beauty, and it attracts a loyal following of consumers and jewelry designers.
If you can't tell the difference, and they are both created by natural forces, which would YOU prefer?
Pearls to Swine, or Fire Anyway
Such over-supply became a serious problem for Japan’s cultured pearl production industry in 1935. This compelled Kokichi to go on a marketing campaign throughout Europe and the United State to push his pearls. He went as far as to burn a pile of inferior pearls to demonstrate that the Kokichi Company would only sell the most superb specimens. The publicity stunt, along with Mikimoto’s tireless efforts, worked to propel the industry into an era of growth and refinement.
The Man created an industry
The Payoff of a Life's Work
For his proactive efforts at legitimizing the cultured pearl industry Mikimoto Kokichi was honored by his contemporaries and his country. The Japanese city of Toba erected a museum on Mikimoto Pearl Island to showcase exquisite specimens and offer information about the birth of the cultured pearl. Kokichi is purported to have first succeeded at pearl cultivation on this island, known at that time as Ojima. He is praised as being one of the most respectable and professional businessmen in Japanese history and was posthumously awarded the Grand Cordon, the highest honor of the Order of the Sacred Treasure.
The Pearl King
The Father of the Cultured Pearl
Mikimoto Kokichi was enthralled by the magic and creation of pearls since the ripe age of 13. He witnessed the joy that they brought and spent his life trying to bring that joy into the lives of everyday people by making the pearl accessible to more than just the social elite. His selfless research single-handedly fueled the cultured pearl industry to become what it is today.
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© 2012 S.P. Kelly