Kokichi Mikimoto: The Pearl King

The pearl world radically changed when a Japanese entrepreneur decides to dedicate all his life to fulfil  a dream: to adorn the necks of all the women in the world with pearls. He succeeded in generating the first whole cultured pearl in 1905 and his name became forever associated with the history of pearls, jewellery and, interestingly, of gemmology.

Historical Background

Pearls have always been highly desirable. This undeniable enchantment has many causes and it is in part associated with the extreme rarity of high quality specimens. These solid concretions are generally composed of nacre (layers of aragonitic calcium carbonate bio-mineralization, a scleroprotein named conchiolin and intersticial water) and result from the activity of certain mollusks, specially the popularly called pearl oysters (species of the genus Pteria and Pinctada) and also in some freshwater mussels (e.g. Margaritifera margaritifera). Good quality natural pearls are, indeed, rare. This popularity also has to do with its singular visual characteristics, related to the unique lustre and near surface sheen effect or overtone (iridescence) sometimes called "orient".
The high esteem for pearls is well expressed in many sacred texts, from the Hindu Rigveda to the Tanak, Bible and the Koran, where there are interesting allusions to pearls as symbols of purity and value. There are also numerous representations of pearls in portraits of sovereigns and powerful men and women, expressing great wealth. The dichotomy between purity and chastity versus ostentation and power is therefore culturally well cemented and it was superbly explored by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), namely in his famous painting "Girl with a Pearl Earring" in ca. 1665.

The famous Vermeer painting "The Girl with a Pearl Earring" (ca. 1665) © Mauritshuis, The Hague

For millennia, natural pearls have been collected in various parts of the world, harvested from wild mollusks, specially saltwater and freshwater bivalves. The most popular were occasionally found in various marine species, like the small sized gulf pearl oyster (Pinctada radiata) in the Arabic, or Persian, Gulf and the Mannar Gulf (between India and Sri Lanka) and the large white-lipped or silver-lipped pearl oyster (Pinctada maxima) in southeast Asian to Australian waters, not forgetting the rainbow lip pearl oyster (Pteria sterna) and La Paz pearl oyster (Pinctada mazatlanica) in central America. Divers in these regions collected the living shells for food or to seek the occasional pearls (sometimes also to collect mother-of-pearl) that only very rarely had gem quality, that is, a set of visual characteristics that would make them suitable for jewellery (a combination of size, lustre, shape, colour and surface quality). The over exploitation of several resources led to a decrease in availability that contrasted with a huge increase in demand in the 19th century, which caused the overall perception that good quality pearls were really very expensive, almost impossible to obtain. The famous case of the Mae Plant superb necklace, traded by $100 and a mansion in Manhattan, is one of the most striking examples of pearl values on those times (read more on this case in the article "A New York Mansion Worth of Pearls".

Mae Plant with her "million dollar" natural pearl necklace and Cartier's headquarters in Manhattan featured in a previous blog post, showing how expensive were natural pearls before Mikomoto © Cartier

The first attempts

It is in this historical and market context that the first attempts to grow pearls as a cultured product take place. It must be said, however, that in the 13th century attempts were made in freshwater mussels in China and cultured blisters were reported with the shape of Buddha. Similarly, in the 18th century the famous Swedish scientist Karl Gustav von Linne (1708-1778), also mentioned  as Linnaeus, managed to grow a drilled cultured pearl, rather imperfect, inside a pearl oyster. It was, however, in the late 1800's that the real developments started to take place, this time in Japan. Three gentlemen in particular contributed greatly to these discoveries that changed the paradigm of pearl consumption: a marine biologist, Tokichi Nishikawa (1874-1909), a carpenter, Tatsuhei Mise (1880-1924) and the son of a noodle merchant from Toba, Kichimatsu (Kokichi) Mikimoto (1858-1954).

Mikimoto started his experiments in 1888 using the local akoya pearl oyster (a Japanese species from the akoya complex, usually referred to as Pinctada fucata) in Benten-shima and 5 years later, in 1893, with the help Prof. Kakishi Mitsukuri of Tokyo University, already managed to produce hemispherical "pearls" that, technically, are cultured blisters, not pearls (since they did not grew in pearl sacs). The process involved the use of mother-of-pearl nuclei (obtained from freshwater mussels from America) inserted between the shell and the animal's nacre-secreting mantle. After applying for a patent, Mikimoto finally receive it in 1896, being the first patent for culturing pearls. Soon after, huge quantities of Mikimoto cultured blisters were being marketed.

A 1906 advertise in the Japan Times, promoting the new cultured blisters, then named "culture pearls", available in commercial quantities. Note the sales copy referring to "genuine fine oriental pearls" produced by a scientific treatment, a rather interesting phrasing that, today, would be considered absolutely wrong and, possibly, subject to trade sanctions  © Japan Times

The refinement of the culturing process

In spite of the success, Mikimoto was not totally satisfied  since he was looking for a method to grow a whole cultured pearl, not blisters. In 1902, Tatsuhei Mise managed to nucleate a few thousand of local akoya oysters using plumb and silver bead nucleus, and after two years the managed to culture round pearls. The process was patented in 1907, being the first patent on a round cultured pearl grown process. At the same time, Tokishi Nishikawa was nucleating using gold and silver sphere nucleus. This method became known as Mise-Nishikawa method where a tiny piece of mantle tissue (a graft) was placed next to the spherical bead inserted in the mollusk's gonads. However, some authors atribute the method to William Saville-Kent, a British born Australian.

The nucleation process, using a mother-of-pearl round bead and a graft of epitelial tissue, patented by Mikimoto in 1908 © Mikimoto

Mikimoto insists in the use of Mississipi basin freshwater mussel's shell as beads and uses a large tissue graft covering the whole nucleus and in 1905 he got his first whole cultured pearl and eventually patented the process in 1908. Officially, 1905 is the year when the first whole cultured pearl was successfully produced inside a pearl oyster. His main discovery happened only when he associated the grafting method of Mise-Nishikawa, using small pieces of tissue, with freshwater shell bead nucleus inserted in the gonads. By 1916, Mikimoto had already began producing significant quantities of akoya beaded cultured pearls and made history in the development of the culturing method still is use today in the production of most saltwater cultured pearls, including in the South Seas (Pinctada maxima) and Tahiti (Pinctada margaritifera), just to name the most abundant. In the 1920's a series of advances and drawbacks  happened in marketing and distributing the new akoya cultured pearls. The international jewellery community finally recognised the term "cultured pearl" and everything was concurring to the growing popularity of the new product that was competing with their natural and rare counterparts: natural pearls.

The famous brooch "Yaguruma"by Mikimoto, in platinum, diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and akoya cultured pearls produced by Mikimoto © Mikimoto Pearl Museum

Impact on the market

The efficient culturing method of Mikimoto and his ingenious marketing skills offered beautifully looking cultured pearls at a fraction of the price of similar looking natural pearls. The fact that there was a round bead inside contributed to a more regular round external shape of cultured pearls, a characteristic only rarely seen on natural pearls, specially in uniform strands. The quantities produced (over 10 million cultured pearls by late 1930's) also made impact in the way pearls could and would be used in jewellery, affecting designers and consumer behaviour or taste.

The typical graduated strand of akoya cultured pearls that became fashionable in the first few decades of production © Mikimoto Pearl Museum

Mikimoto's vision was beyond producing cultured pearls and, as already mentioned, he also was keen in marketing them and setting them in jewellery, in a vertically integrated business model. His famous words to the emperor of Japan summarise his dream of "adorning the necks of all woman in the world with pearls". In 1899 he founded the first Mikimoto Pearl Shop in Tokyo, a small firm that eventually became the international group now known as Mikimoto Pearl Island, with its headquarters in Toba. In 1907 Mikimoto Gold Work Factory (today known as Mikimoto Jewelry Mfg. Co. Ltd.) was created and international branches started to open, the first inaugurated in London in 1913. His vision and entrepreneurship were recognised by the Japanese emperor, that invited him for a dinner in 1930 and eventually granted him the honourable title of official jeweller to the Imperial House of Japan. In a few decades after his first experiments, similar ventures would begin in other parts of the world and, today, the many pearl farms in places like Australia, French Polynesia, Indonesia, The Philippines, Fiji, Vietname and Mexico, just to name the most important locations, are testimonies of Mikimoto's legacy to the world of pearls.

The impact of Kokichi Mikimoto's activities was very significant in many aspects, beyond the obvious changes in the paradigm of pearl trading and use in jewellery. Today, it is perfectly accepted that cultured pearls are a normal, sometimes, extraordinary, gem product and that natural pearls became a niche product, specially in certain geographies and in the antique's markets. Being truth that high quality natural pearls still command very high prices, the bulk of the market by volume and by value is today lead by cultured pearls, with a special emphasis to freshwater cultured pearls in terms of volume (with production figures of circa 600 tons per year and even higher in past years).
This competition between natural and cultured pearls in the high-end of the jewellery ecosystem, lead to the need to separate between natural and cultured pearls, a preoccupation that was quite present in the jewellery trade leadership from the very beginning when value perception for pearls was indeed very high. If flame fusion (Verneuil) synthetic rubies were behind the first gemmological education projects, cultured pearls were, in turn, the most important argument for the foundation in 1925 of the first gemmological laboratory in the world at the London Chamber of Commerce. The famous gemmologist Basil Anderson (1901-1984) was the director of this facility that was specifically set-up with the best instrumentation available at the time to face the then modern challenges and contribute to the consumer's confidence in the jewellery industry. Even today, highly sophisticated laboratories rely on the latest technology and science to perform this very task (e.g. DANAT, SSEF, GIA Thailand).

The King of Pearls, Kichimatsu (Kokichi) Mikimoto (1858-1954), at age 70, in cerimonial atire © Mikimoto

A tribute is, therefore, in order in honouring this entrepreneur that left a distinguished legacy in the way pearls are used today allover the world and that was a key figure in the advancement of gemmology and gemological laboratories as a necessary tool to supporting the jewellery industry and promoting consumer confidence.