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The Cultured Pearl

Updated on May 29, 2019

A pursuit into pearls

A legacy of pearls.
A legacy of pearls. | Source

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 obsession with the cloudy gems.

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 both 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

All that life needs in order to encouragement.
All that life needs in order to encouragement. | Source

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

All pearls are grown by their own organic processes, the difference is that fresh water oysters are encouraged to mature faster.
All pearls are grown by their own organic processes, the difference is that fresh water oysters are encouraged to mature faster. | Source

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

Open ocean diving for saltwater pearls that may or may not have matured exposes the diver to danger and provides no consistency.
Open ocean diving for saltwater pearls that may or may not have matured exposes the diver to danger and provides no consistency. | Source

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 Oysters

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.

Reader's Choice

If you can't tell the difference, and they are both created by natural forces, which would YOU prefer?

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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 cultured pearl industry employs hundreds of thousands of people worldwide from harvesting, manufacturing, distribution, and retail sales.
The cultured pearl industry employs hundreds of thousands of people worldwide from harvesting, manufacturing, distribution, and retail sales. | Source

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

Some will say the cultured pearl is better in many ways, but hardliners and those of the old school avidly oppose.
Some will say the cultured pearl is better in many ways, but hardliners and those of the old school avidly oppose. | Source

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.

© 2012 Steven P Kelly


Submit a Comment
  • kuttingxedge profile imageAUTHOR

    Steven P Kelly 

    7 years ago from Tampa, FL

    Myjewelpearl- Thank you very much! I appreciate that you enjoyed them!!

  • profile image


    7 years ago

    Your articles are very comprehensive and educational. Thks for sharing!


  • kuttingxedge profile imageAUTHOR

    Steven P Kelly 

    9 years ago from Tampa, FL

    Thanks for reading and the kudos Donna. I enjoyed learning it as I went too.

  • Donna Sundblad profile image

    Donna Sundblad 

    9 years ago from Georgia

    Interesting article. I never thought about where cultured pearls started. Well written, and attractively laid out, too. Voted up.


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