There are times when one person has a dream, a vision of what can be accomplished. With that vision – plus years of hard work – great things can be done. Such a vision and accomplishments are the story of Mikimoto Koichi and the pearl.
Long before the beginning of recorded history, divers and fishermen have brought oysters to the surface of the sea, lakes and rivers to harvest the mild, sweet meat from their shells. Occasionally, a small luminous treasure was found in one of these oysters: a pearl. Sometimes round, but often misshapen from a true sphere, pearls are treasured for their lustre and beautiful colours. Unfortunately, pearls are rare. Indeed, out of 2,000 pounds of oysters gathered, only three or four pearls will be found. As a result, pearls have been classified as a rare gem (although they are not minerals). They have been so valued that they have been used to adorn the crown of royalty and the jewelry and gowns of the wealthy.
In the late 1870s, a poor Japanese boy named Mikimoto Kokichi watched as pearl divers brought in their small pouches of these rare treasures back to the fishing town of Toba, at the mouth of Ise Bay. Young Mikimoto had been born as the eldest son of a family that had, for generations, owned an [I]udon[/I] (noodle) restaurant in Toba, but times were changing. Just a few years before he was born, a fleet of United States Navy ships had visited Japan as part of America’s insistence than Japan sign treaties to allow foreigners to trade with them. As a result, the old Edo Period had ended and the modern Meiji Period had begun. Trade, business opportunity and social movement had become more available, even to young, poor tradesmen. The times were right and Mikimoto was ready.
Mikimoto became fascinated with pearls and soon was involved with pearl selling, even to the point where he was one of the judges at an exhibition of pearls in Japan in 1878. He realized that the greatest challenge in the pearl trade was the wide range in quality and shapes of wild-gathered pearls. Even as rare as pearls were, perfectly shaped and consistently coloured pearls were even more uncommon. He was not alone in this observation, but his approach was different from many. In the West, when a natural product was too rare or when the quality was too uncertain, the common response was to create an entirely artificial substitute. During the 19th century in Europe and America, ways were found to synthetically manufacture natural dyes, substitutes for rare woods and even ivory. The genius of Mikimoto Kokichi was to find a way to work with the oyster, to encourage it to create a natural, but perfect, pearl.
In 1888, Mikimoto founded a pearl oyster farm in an inlet of Ago Bay, just northwest of his native town. Using the Akoya oyster (Pinctada fucata), which he had identified as providing the most and best pearls, he began producing mabe[ pearls (also called “blister pearls”). These pearls are grown against the inside of the oyster shell, and are therefore hemispherical (round, with a flat back). The method, dating back to the 1200s in China, was well known in Japan but still not commonly produced. Because of the time it takes to grow oysters to a size large enough for pearl production, as well as the time involved for the pearls to form, it was not until 1893 that Mikimoto was able to harvest his first batch of mabe pearls – a grand total of five pearls! Still, by hard and diligent work, he was producing 4,200 by 1895, with the number increasing each year.
Mikimoto licensed this patented method in 1916 and, by 1919, was producing enough pearls to begin selling them throughout the world.
In 1897, he felt that his production was sufficiently secure to allow him to begin marketing his mabe pearls outside Japan. In that year he exhibited his pearls at an exhibition of marine products in Norway. This attracted enough attention to allow him to begin to export pearls to Europe. Sales increased even further when he opened his first retail store in the fashionable Ginza district of Tokyo.
Then, disaster struck Mikimoto’s pearl farm in 1905. A sudden increase of aquatic algae created a poisonous condition known as a “red tide” in Ago Bay, killing all of his oysters. Devastated, Mikimoto could only try to salvage what he could by opening the dead oysters to recover whatever mabe pearls that had developed. While doing this, he discovered that there were five perfect, round pearls. Heartened, Mikimoto re-established his oyster operation and went to work to try to develop a method to create round (spherical) pearls.
Unknown to Mikimoto, three other men – two Japanese and a British biologist living in Australia – were working on the same project. The two Japanese pearl growers, Nishikawa Tokishi and Mise Tatsuhei, had even developed and patented a method which dependably produced spherical pearls. This method involved inserting a small, spherical bead made from the mantle tissue of one oyster into the gonad of another oyster. This bead irritated the oyster, which then formed a sac around it and began to form nacre (a shell-like substance) around the nucleus, eventually resulting in a pearl. This is the same process that forms pearls in the wild, so the cultured pearls are natural in every sense, but differ only that they are created in a deliberate, planned manner.
Mikimoto licensed this patented method in 1916 and, by 1919, was producing enough pearls to begin selling them throughout the world. Over the decades, but particularly after the end of the Second World War in 1945, the Mikimoto pearls have become synonymous with the highest quality of this beautiful gem. Today, throughout the world, Mikimoto pearls are among the most treasured and highest valued (and priced!) pearls available.
In recognition of his achievements, Mikimoto Kokichi was inducted into the House of Peers by Imperial decree. Although he died in 1954, Mikimoto Kokichi was also awarded the highest level in the Zuiho-sho (Order of the Sacred Treasure). Ojima, an island in Ise Bay not far from his birthplace, has been renamed Mikimoto Island.