— Explore the secret of pearl jewelry world and Mikimoto’s pearl revolution
I had a chance to visit the “Mikomoto Pearl Museum” in “Pearl Island” of Toba, in Mie Prefecture this year. The Pearl Island is a famous place where Mr. Mikimoto had successfully developed “cultured” pearls for the first time in the world, and the island is now one of the tourist attractions in the Ise Shima National Park too. The Pearl Museum shows us amazing pearl world by providing exhibits of real pearls and elaborate explanation regarding nature of pearls, way of breeding of pearl, making process of pearl’s jewelry, and other information related to pearls. It was a quite knowledgeable museum to see the history of pearls, and how man-made culture pearl was born and developed in this area. In addition, I had an occasion to visit the “Mikimoto Kokichi Memorial Hall” which shows the development story of “cultured pearl” of Mikimoto Co. and its founder Mikimoto’s biography. I was quite interesting visit, so I’d like to report it here.
♣ Outline and exhibition of Mikimoto Pearl Museum
The museum exhibitions are divided into four sections. First, the natural built pearl jewelry and its jewelry were displayed there, next corner shows the scientific explanation exhibition on how pearls are made in the sea and the way of pearl farming, then the comment is given on the pearl making process to finalize it as a jewel. Finally, the Mikimoto’s legendary artifacts of pearls are exhibited in the special corner. In addition to the exhibition, the museum staff will lecture you how pearls are produced and crafted with using real pearl shells there, so you can understand the scientific mechanism of pearls in detail. The composition of the museum are as follows
♣ History of pearls and jewelry works
According to the museum exhibition, there are several categories of pearl shells found, such as peal oysters, black butterfly shells, white butterfly shells, of which the pearl oysters are the most prized one. These pearl oysters inhabit at bottom of the relatively deep sea, so people must dive deeply and exploit them to harvest them. Therefore, naturally born pearls have been counted as one of the most precious “jewels” for long time.
In addition, its rainbow-colored gloss was regarded as a symbol of people’s valuable fortune, wealth and power, so it has been worn as a valuable jewelry since ancient times. At the museum, numerous natural pearl jewelry is displayed which were worn by European wealthy aristocratic class of ladies.
For example. Ancient Roman pearl earrings, Renaissance era’s pearl pendant, Mughal Kingdom’s pearl and gold necklace, in addition to the European seed pearls with gold jewelry, cameo brooches in 19th century, and so-called Art Nouveau style pearl necklace, and so on. Every pearl jewelry you can see there is outstandingly well-crafted artifacts filled with stunning charms. Meanwhile, it was interesting to know that natural pearls in China and Japan have been used medical substances as well as jewelry.
However, the appearance of cultured pearls gave unprecedented impact to the natural pearls jewel industry because it broke the monopoly and made shift them from exclusive possession by wealthy class to widely used attractive jewels for general people, even though the pearl was still expensive ones. The transition process of natural pearls to cultured pearls during this period seems to be very much interesting too.
♣ Structure of pearl shell and development of pearl farming
The museum explains the mechanism how pearl shells produce pearls and production ofcultured pearls at Ago bay of Shima area.
In the pearl shell, there is a layer called “mantle membrane” inside the shell, which has a function of breathing and absorbing seawater to grow and produces another new shellfish itself. A part of cells of this mantle will be missing and forming a “nucleus” bag (pearl sack) occasionally.
Then the bag is crystallized by a glossy secretion which exuded in shell and grew into multi-layer’s luminous ball. his is the what called natural pearl. The component is almost the same with slime inner layer of the shellfish of rainbow dolor glossy. This natural pearl is formed just with incidental case only,
and a beautiful circular spherical pearl is available This is the what called natural pearl. The component is almost the same with inner layer of the slime shellfish of rainbow dolor glossy. This natural pearl is formed in incidental case only, and a beautiful circular spherical pearl is available miraculously rare.
On the other hand, the cultured pearls are produced by artificially transplanting a “nucleus” into the mantle with hand and try to form a pearl using this nucleus. However, this process was quite sophisticated, and this method had been experimenting long time, but anybody couldn’t succeed in the world.
In these circumstances, a Japanese businessman, called Mikimoto. succeeded to produce a “cultured pearl” for the first time in the early Meiji period of 1890s. After success to produce pearls artificially, he disseminated this “cultured pearl” as “Mikimoto pearl” which boasts holding equivalent aesthetic value of pearls as natural pearls.
♣ How culture pearls were produced
This aquaculture process had been technically so difficult. Now it becomes a little bit easy to cultivate pearl shell because the aquaculture technology is advanced due to the continuing scientific experiment, but the experts actually indicate there are still many problems existed.
First of all, it is necessary to collect a large number of precious mother pearl shells and to grow in the sea water for long time. In addition, the special measure was required to sort out and collect the good shellfish, then they should grow sufficient number of shellfishes.
Even after the “nuclear” is embedded in the shell, the embryo of pearls must be retained and cured over a long period in a relatively deep seabed for several years. It is said that this success rate is not so high, and many are dead or couldn’t produce pearls at all.
Also, a lot of hard work is required in the sea, this “tough job” had been handled by “Ama” (professional diving girl)” in Ago Bay. These all were difficult barriers for the long time to proliferate producing cultured pearls in large amount. Later, the burden of this work in the sea has been a bit lightened by using floating rafts and hanging pearls shells from them in the sea. And by adopting this method, a large amount of pearl shells became possible to cultivate one time, but it is said the work was still never easy ones.
<Fine pearl making process>
Then, the pearl shells which have bred are pulled up to the land (“Hamaage”), and the raw pearls should be picked up from the shell, and the sort-out process comes. However, even now, it was said that about half of the pearl shells raised on the beach are dead, 17% are bad quality, and fine pearls are available only less than 5%.
Next comes the process of finishing the pearl as a jewel. Here, there are strict inspection and sorting of cultured pearls such as color, gloss, size and shape, and finally it will be going to the market as a product. We can easily imagine how patient and delicate works there to create such a perfect pearl product as beautiful jewel.
<Business transition from natural pearl to cultured pearl>
Now the jewelry pearls as an ornament are becoming popular treasure for the general people now, although it’s still an expensive product. But it was believed to be attributed much to the appearance of cultured pearl, because the pearl was so expensive that it was exclusively worn by ultra-wealthy class people only before. The name was “cultured”, but it has been showing high quality of shining luster same with natural pearl.
Any way, it is a noted episode that many US military officers flocked to this Toba farm just after the War of Japan and asked for Mikimoto Pearl in rush as souvenirs for their home country. In this way, these cultured pearls in Japan were extremely valuable and popular among foreigners, and it’s quite understandable that cultured pearl became one of the major export items of Japan at the time.
♣ Mikimoto Jewelry’s history and masterpieces
At the Pearl Museum, numerous pearl works produced by Mikimoto is displaying along with Mikimoto Koukichi’s life story (a founder Mikimoto Co.) The highlight treasury works shown among them are be aesthetic artifacts of pearl jewelry which have been exhibited and gained the highly reputation at the big worldwide Expos.
A series of works exhibited were highly valued at the Expos regarding their unique designing features of Japanese aesthetics style. The exhibited products were, for examples, the “Gunbai Ohgi” (Military commanding fan) in 1893, the “Mikimoto Five-story Pagoda” in 1925 (for Philadelphia World’s World Expo), the “Yaguruma: Large Waistband Clip” (for Paris Expo 1937) “Liberty Bell” (Exhibition of New York Expo 1939), and others. The “Globe”, which is decorated with thousands of pearls in 1990, was also eye-catching work of Mikimoto. These seem to imply the high level of Mikimoto’s pearl art production.
On the other hand, we should admit that Mikimoto’s products were dominantly “Semi-circular pearls”, and many of them incorporated in the part of other jewelry items. Mikimoto has been producing hair ornaments such as combs and hooks using these semicircle pearls and commercialized them as a jewelry item at the beginning period. However. But as the cultured “spherical round pearl” was beginning to be sufficiently produced and upgraded much, their pearl jewelry was rapidly closed to the high level of European design jewelry, and the artistic value of cultured pearls was dramatically increased. The “Mikimoto Five-story Pagoda” was one of them which was highly appreciated as an aesthetic product at that time.
After taking such track, the reputation of Mikimoto jewelry rises more than ever, and Mikimoto could grow as a world level pearl manufacturer in the field of pearl necklace, earrings, bracelet, and other ornaments. This evidence would be the exhibition of “Mikimoto Prestigious Works” at this museum.
♣ Recent trend of Ise Shima pearl world
Mikimoto, which became a global pearl maker in this way, is no more engaged much in the direct cultured pearl farming though, and the company already transformed to the total enterprise primarily concentrating on the pearl jewelry’s designing, its processing and selling businesses. So the distribution of Mikimoto pearls are expanded and the sales network of the cultured pearls are now spreading to the worldwide. On the other hand, the domestic supply of pearls are becoming short and lack of volume for producing pear jewelry, in addition to the worsening of water quality around the Ise Shima bay and the influence of frequent occurring red tide and other unfavorable conditions. As a result, Mikimoto now became to procure the cultured pearl sources around the world.
Then, the Ago Bay of Shima can’ say no more the center of cultured pearls, but this area is still proud of historical significance as a birthplace of Japan’s pearls and also as a memorial place of business establishment of Mikimoto. However, it is said that new “One Piece of Pearl” project starts by a local NGO of Shima in 2003 for breeding high quality pearl shells through creating underwater forest that hopes to foster Akoyagai pearl shells there. It would be a new movement in the local pearl industrial revitalization around Ago bay, beside strengthening tourist attraction of Ise Shima’s pearl industry.
♦ Remarks after visit Pearl Museum
By visiting Pearl Island and its museum, I felt I could comprehend a bit about pearl world and its implication, such as long history of pearl and jewelry, scientific feature of pearl, formation of cultured pearls industry, water environment, and so on. It’s a valuable experience for me.
I’d like to make a further report on the “Mikimoto Kokichi Memorial Hall” in the Island next.
- Home Page; Pearl Museum: http://www.mikimoto-pearl-museum.co.jp/museum/
- Pearl Museum “真珠博物館―人と真珠―” (Mikimoto Pearl Island)
- KokichiMikimoto Memorial Museum “御木本幸吉記念館” (Mikimoto Pearl Island)
- 真珠の知識・研究・記事・考察 | 岩城真珠 https://www.pearl.ne.jp/story/study_of_pearl.html
- 真珠講座2『養殖真珠の歴史』 | 中央宝⽯研究所（CGL）
- 養殖真珠の地位の確⽴ http://www.nihongo.com/aaa/pearl/p2youshoku/p23chii.htm
- Mikimoto Hisotry: https://www.mikimoto.com/jp/history/index.html
- 真珠の養殖と加⼯ http://www.nihongo.com/aaa/pearl/p2youshoku/p21yoush.html
- NPOひとつぶの真珠 (NPO One piece of Pearl)