Many of us love pearls. They are beautiful in jewelry and exude class. We tend to take it for granted the affordability of cultured pearls and forget natural pearls were once incredibly expensive because they were so rare. If not for Kokichi Mikimoto (1858-1954), they would have remained out of our reach.

He once said, "I would like to adorn the necks of all the women of the world with pearls." Perhaps not every woman on Earth but he has to a large extent succeeded because many ordinary women can indeed own pearls today.

Through dogged persistence, despite personal tragedy, natural disasters and a hostile natural pearl industry, this man managed to perfect the art of culturing round pearls and create a market for them.

His life is the classic rags to riches tale. He was born the eldest son of a poor Japanese noodle maker in Toba. He left school in his early teens to help support his family when his father fell ill. He made noodles for sale and also sold vegetables and eggs on the side. In 1875, a visiting American warship bought vegetables from his little boat - he caught the sailors' attention by his ability to juggle his cabbages and eggs with his feet!

With the money he made, he was able to take a holiday in the Greater Tokyo area. There he saw Chinese traders paying high prices for pearls found in akoya oysters the Japanese harvest for food (see my past post on the bare breasted Ama divers of Japan). The pearls were destined for medicinal use. When he got home, he was inspired to start his own business buying and selling pearls until supplies started to run out.

The next logical step was to make the pearls. He wasn't the first to try. Over the centuries, many people attempted to duplicate what nature made by chance. The Chinese in the 5th century AD for example, had already tried making mabe or hemi-spherical pearls by placing buttons or even lead Buddha medallions inside the oysters which then covered the foreign objects with pearl nacre. Mikimoto and two other Japanese men, Tokishi Nishikawa and Tatsuhei Mise worked out two different ways of making round pearls. The Mise-Nishikawa technique, still used today, turned out to be better than Mikimoto's own although he did perfect the former.

Mikimoto spent years struggling with many experiments and natural phenomena like algal blooms called red tides which sometimes destroyed his "crop". He also went heavily into debt trying to make his first mabe pearls and much later, round ones. Through this difficult early period, Mikimoto's wife, Ume, was his loving and stalwart partner. She encouraged her husband in his work even as creditors were pounding at the door. She died at 32 having lived long enough to see the first pearl produced. The grief stricken Mikimoto was left to raise 4 little girls and an infant son. For the rest of his life, he sometimes referred to pearls as teardrops.

From the first World War onwards, Japanese pearl farms were churning out pearls by the millions. Mikimoto then began marketing them abroad. His cultured pearls took the industry by storm. His pearls were labelled fakes by those who stood to lose a lot - natural pearl dealers. Eventually, the inevitable occurred - pearl prices crashed by 1930. Mikimoto in the meantime grew rich and was quite the showman, constantly promoting his pearls. He once publicly burned thousands of inferior pearls to emphasise the high quality of his pearls.

Mikimoto met many Americans, from his earliest contact as a teenager and later with traders from the Mississippi area who supplied him with the shells from American mussels such as the pig toe, washboard, ebony, elephant ear, pistol grip and heel-splitter (all highly colorful descriptive names for some pretty ugly mussels). The shells were and still are made into the "hearts", nuclei or starter beads for almost all round cultured pearls.

Mikimoto grew to like Americans so much, he publicly objected to his country's involvement in the Second World War. In honor-bound Japan, this was a remarkable act of defiance. Someone even sent him a sword and expected him to commit seppuku or hara kiri. He declared " I am a business man, not a soldier" and refused to comply. After the war, during the Allied occupation of Japan, returning GIs bought his pearls for their wives and sweethearts and the popularity of pearls soared.

By 1946 Mikimoto was listed as the richest man in Japan. Yet, he chose to live a very simple life in his old age. You can see pictures of his house and his belongings here. He died at 96 in 1954.

Today, Pearl Island where he owned one of his farms is a tourist destination complete with white suited female divers emulating the Ama. The area is now polluted and production has declined. But Mikimoto pearls are also grown elsewhere and they are still renowned for their beauty.

Last year, the Mikimoto company came out with the $1,000,000 pearl necklace I wrote about. This year, they have surpassed themselves with the $1,600,000 aptly named Goddess Necklace available from their New York store. 25 large (17.0 mm to 19.6 mm) silvery South Sea pearls make up this 18 inch necklace complete with a 7 carat diamond and platinum clasp. It took the company over 10 years to acquire these perfect pearls.


Victoria Finlay (2005). Jewels: A Secret History. Sceptre.
Island Pearls' The Return of the American Pearl
Gemology Project : Pearl
The Beading Gem's Journal

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