By Danielle Olivia Tefft
Kokichi Mikimoto has aptly been called “The Pearl King.” Without his efforts, cultured pearls would not be the coveted, yet accessible, treasures that they are today. Here is the story of this great Japanese entrepreneur who rose from very humble beginnings.
An Entrepreneur is Born
Kokichi Mikimoto (1858-1954) was born on the brink of a bold new era in Japan. The country’s isolationist policies and trade restrictions with the outside world were coming to an end. Japan had been closed to trade with foreign markets for hundreds of years prior to the 19th century. Mikimoto was born the eldest son of a modest shop owner. He dropped out of school at age 13 so he could work to help support his family. Initially, he grew vegetables to sell at the local market in his humble seaside town of Toba. Unlike the old timers in his town who found change difficult, he easily and quickly embraced the new era. The idea that a merchant could make an excellent profit by selling product to the outside world as well as the local market excited Mikimoto. He observed sea merchants trading a vast array of lucrative treasures from the deep. Clearly the sea offered an enormous bounty from which to make a living. But which marine product could he possibly entice an entire world to buy? He solved his conundrum the first time he saw women pearl divers working from the shores of Toba. Their occupation sparked a passionate fire and a lifelong vision inside the young Mikimoto.
Fascination with Pearls and the Ama
Kokichi Mikimoto had always been fascinated by the scarcity and beauty of the natural pearls found in the saltwater Akoya oyster beds off the shores of his home town of Toba. It is no wonder that the women pearl divers of the town, known as “ama,” held a fascination for young Mikimoto. But he noticed the ama never found large hoards of natural pearls when they dove in search of Akoya oysters. The few handfuls of pearls they found during a fruitful dive were usually irregularly shaped, as well. This was because natural pearls are formed by chance inside mollusks like the ama’s coveted Akoya oysters. Oysters only form pearls when they try to soothe irritations caused by external debris that becomes trapped inside their shells. They surround each irritant with multiple layers of secretions called nacre. These layers eventually form a pearl. Because of the variance in debris type and shape, natural pearls have very little consistency.
Spurred by his passionate entrepreneurial spirit, Mikimoto spent long hours trying to figure out how to make the Akoya oysters produce more of their breathtaking pearl bounty. But he also wanted to find a way to make the oysters produce more uniform pearls. He was a perfectionist at heart. It bothered him that the pearls being retrieved from the sea were often of poor quality. Even Japanese royalty settled for these inferior pearls, especially the irregular shapes which were most often found. He believed a perfect pearl should be round. He knew there must be a solution to the problem.
The Birth of an Empire
Mikimoto was just 23 years old in 1881 when he married Ume. She was the shrewd 17 year-old daughter of the Toba Clan’s prestigious sword maker. Ume’s family was able to give their highly intelligent eldest daughter an excellent education. She became Mikimoto’s business partner and inspiration. In 1888, at age 31, Mikimoto bought a pearl oyster farm with Ume. It was located on Ago Bay, not far from their home town of Toba. Mikimoto, the consummate entrepreneur, set to work experimenting with saltwater Akoya oysters. He was trying to get them to produce perfectly round pearls. He picked Akoya pearls because he believed they produced a superior quality of pearls compared to other mollusks. Finally, in 1893, he succeeded in producing cultured (induced by artificial means) pearls from Akoya oysters. Ume’s keen business sense was instrumental to Mikimoto’s endeavors until her untimely death in 1897. Nevertheless, Mikimoto persevered in her memory and opened his first pearl shop in Ginza, Tokyo in 1899.
Kokichi Mikimoto was not the first to attempt to create cultured pearls by introducing fake irritants into the internal tissues of oysters. Actually, another Japanese entrepreneur first tried to obtain a patent for the process in 1904. However, it was determined that his method was identical to one Mikimoto’s biologist son-in-law had come up with, so the two had to share a patent issued in 1908. None of this deterred Mikimoto. He obtained his own patent in 1916 and then purchased the original 1908 patent, as well. He continued to perfect the techniques involved in producing cultured pearls, called “perliculture.” It was this relentless, entrepreneurial spirit that led Mikimoto to succeed in building his cultured pearl empire which is still very much revered today.
The World-Class Marketer
Mikimoto never tried to pass his cultivated pearls off as natural pearls. But he did insist that they were as real as natural pearls and coined the phrase “cultured” for the perfectly round pearls made by his process. Every Mikimoto cultured pearl has a center bead (irritant) cut from a freshwater pearl mussel shell. This bead is injected into a live Akoya oyster upon which the nacre is deposited in layers to create each cultured pearl.
Milkimoto’s relentless and strategic worldwide marketing campaign for cultured pearls was so successful that by the 1920s, they became more sought after and preferred by women than natural pearls. Mikimoto’s cultured pearls were perfect in shape and as beautiful as natural pearls in their luster. Because of Mikimoto’s perliculture efforts, the once exorbitant prices for pearls fell. This made them affordable to the masses for the first time. With the help of fashion icons like Coco Chanel who insisted that pearls represented the height of sophistication, women of every social background clamored to own Mikimoto’s beautiful cultured pearls. His beautiful creations were now considered precious gems from the sea – even if they had a little help from man.
Kokichi Mikimoto’s title of “The Pearl King” is well deserved. His perfectly spherical saltwater Akoya pearl is now the standard to which all other cultured pearls, whether saltwater or freshwater varieties, are held. It is also because of Mikimoto’s relentless promotion that pearls are considered as precious as gemstones like rubies, emeralds and diamonds. Fine cultured pearls are no longer associated just with royalty and the wealthy. While saltwater cultured pearls remain pricey, freshwater cultured pearls of differing quality levels can be afforded by most now. Therefore they can be found in most every woman’s jewelry box. Clearly, Mikimoto’s legacy lives on worldwide through each new generation of women as they celebrate life’s special occasions with cultured pearls.