Kokichi Mikimoto (1858 – 1954) When Kokichi Mikimoto was eleven years old and presumptive heir to his family’s generations-old noodle shop business, he was forced to leave school to sell vegetables to help support his family when his father became ill. When Kokichi passed away at age 94, he had become recognized as the world’s pre-eminent ambassador of cultured pearls, acclaimed for personifying Japan’s reputation for quality goods, and among those responsible for building Japan’s global trade.
Included in the many honors he received was an appointment to Japan’s House of Peers, audiences with the country’s emperors, and receipt of the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Sacred Treasure. In 1985, he was selected as one Japan’s top 10 inventors. His efforts have ranked Mikimoto as one of the most important luxury brands of the 20th century.
A visionary, it was his dream to “adorn the necks of all women around the world with pearls.” Since his company’s founding in 1893, elegant women worldwide have been entranced by cultured pearls which are among the most mysterious gems of the sea.
Kokichi was born at the end of Japan’s Edo period when the country was almost totally closed to foreign influence. With the arrival of Commodore Perry in the early 1850s, the doors of international trade began to open and an era of social change began. Highly intelligent and ahead of his time, Kokichi Mikimoto was inspired to explore options beyond his family’s history. As a young man, he was fascinated by his home town’s most famous product, Ise Pearls.
Unlike other gems, these pearls are produced by living animals and require no human faceting or shaping to expose their natural beauty. Natural pearls are formed when some irritant becomes lodged in the shell. In response to the irritation, the mollusk secretes nacre (mother-of-pearl) which gradually builds up in layers around the irritant to form the resulting pearl.
Pearls have been associated with great power and have been incorporated into the mythology of virtually every culture. Since 2300 BC in China, they have been symbols of wealth, prestige or love and cherished by royal families of all origins.
Their value is determined by a combination of the luster, color, size, lack of surface flaws and symmetry. Among these attributes, luster is the most important indicator of a pearl’s quality. However, the larger the pearl the more valuable it is. Large, perfectly round pearls are rare and highly valued.
Because natural pearls fetched high prices, they were gathered in abundance but also became scarcer with each passing year. Concerned about the extinction of pearl-producing oysters, Kokichi embarked on his life’s mission: to grow pearls within their own, protected oyster beds.
In 1878, Kokichi Mikimoto helped arrange and judge a pearl exhibition in Japan. During this event, he saw exhibitors selling misshapen or underdeveloped pearls. A perfectionist, he was put off by the pearl industry’s greed and disregard for quality.
Ultimately, Kokichi learned that Akoya oysters produced the best pearls. His innovative work included introducing a particle into the flesh of the oyster to stimulate secretions of the “nacre” that, over time, built up in hundreds of thousands of layers and produced a lustrous pearl. Through many failed experiments and environmental challenges, from oyster-eating octopi to the disastrous “red tide” of bacteria that threatened the survival of his oyster beds, Mikimoto discovered the secret to cultivating beautiful pearls of such quality that they rivaled natural pearls.
On July 11, 1893, Mikimoto’s wife, Ume, hauled a basket of oysters from the sea for inspection. Nestled within the folds of an oyster, a gleaming object caught her eye. A pearl! Her husband’s dream had finally become a reality. In 1896, Mikimoto was granted his first patent for cultured pearls. He based his business on Ojima Island where his first pearls were grown. He renamed it as Pearl Island.
Mikimoto continued to experiment and improve his processes. In 1916, he applied for and was granted a patent for culturing spherical pearls.
However, Mikimoto was not the only entrepreneur working on a quest for better cultured pearls. In 1907, a patent was granted for the Mise-Nishikawa method of pearl culturing involving a bead nucleus and mantle tissue being placed in the oyster’s gonad.
Mikimoto’s technique of placing the bead into the mantle of the pearl (where natural pearls form) proved less commercially viable. Eventually though, Mikimoto purchased the rights to the Mise-Nishikawa method and further perfected it.
Up until Mikimoto’s experiments, nuclei used to culture pearls were usually metal, often gold and silver beads. What Kokichi discovered, through much trial and error, was that round beads carved from mussel shells and originating in the United States were the best nuclei for round cultured pearls. This discovery made a significant contribution to the cultured pearl process and remains an integral part of culturing saltwater pearls throughout the world. The source for nuclei shells has recently begun to shift from the United States to other countries.
A virtual marketing genius in the world of cultured pearls, Kokichi Mikimoto opened his first boutique in Ginza in 1899. Word of the quality of the products he sold there quickly made its way to Europe and by 1913, Mikimoto had established stores in major cities across the globe.
Always in search of new ways to promote his product, Mikimoto entered many worldwide exhibitions including the 1910 Anglo-Japanese Fair in London. Because he deemed that simply displaying his pearls did not bring them the attention they deserved, he always created a centerpiece for each of the exhibitions he entered insuring that his name and style would not be easily forgotten.
At the London exhibition (his first), he created a Japanese screen and fan embellished with Mikimoto cultured pearls and impressed the attendees. The Mikimoto Pagoda at the 1926 Philadelphia World’s Fair was another masterpiece featuring 12,000 gleaming cultured pearls set into a five-story pearl pagoda.
In 1932, in order to reassert Japan’s superiority in the pearl industry, Mikimoto theatrically burned “inferior” pearls before an audience of the international press. At the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, he displayed a stunning miniature model of Mount Vernon embellished with 24,328 pearls. At the New York World’s Fair in 1939, Mikimoto presented a gorgeous, crowd-stopping pearl model of the Liberty Bell.
Japan’s and Mikimoto’s inventiveness in the world of pearl marketing also produced a downside. By 1930, the price of natural pearls had been so severely impacted by Mikimoto’s cultured pearls that the market for natural pearls nearly collapsed. Further strain was put upon the market by the advent of World War II.
While Mikimoto kept his pearl farms open during the war years, it meant that natural pearlers could not work. Resulting pollution of oyster beds following the discovery of oil in the Persian Gulf and the migration of the work force into other areas related to the war proved a final, fatal blow to the natural pearl industry.
Meanwhile, Mikimoto’s stockpile of cultured pearls insured a dynamic post-war cultured pearl market. Other Japanese pearl farmers, having learned Mikimoto’s techniques, joined the industry and post-war Japan adopted the cultured pearl industry as their “national heritage.”
After World War II, Mikimoto opened stores in Paris, New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Shanghai and Bombay. His was one of the first Japanese brands to attain an international presence and recognition. Despite this, Mikimoto was constantly fighting allegations that his pearls were only “imitations” of real pearls, despite scientific proof to the contrary.
In 1951, Mikimoto again renamed Ojima Island, now calling it Mikimoto Pearl Island and set up a company to develop the island for tourism. A commemorative museum recounting Mikimoto’s life was established there in 1958, and a Pearl Museum opened in 1962. A bridge connecting the island to the mainland was completed in 1970. The Pearl Museum was rebuilt in 1985 and the Mikimoto Museum was also re-designed in 1993.
Highlights of the Museum’s collections include the Obidome-Yaguruma kimono that was exhibited at the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in 1937. The kimono was made from 41 pearls, diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, platinum and 18 carat gold. By rearranging its components, it was possible to make 12 different accessories from it including brooches, hair ornaments, and rings.
Also on display in the museum is a globe made from 12,541 pearls, 377 rubies and 373 diamonds. Its diameter is 33 cm. It complements the Liberty Bell exhibited at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and the previously mentioned Five-Storied Pagoda.
Also displayed is the Himeji Castle which is a 1/90 scale miniature reproduction made of 19,000 pearls, 447 diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, rubies. The exhibited Pearl Crown I is styled after the state crown worn by Queen Mary at the 1911 coronation of Britain’s King George V. It is made from 872 pearls and 188 diamonds.
The museum contains exhibits on Mikimoto’s life including a reproduction of the Udon shop where he was born. The island also contains a bronze sculpture of Mikimoto, the Shrine of Pearl, the Forest of Wild Birds and Observatory, a restaurant, and a pearl shop.
After Kokichi Mikimoto’s passing, the Mikimoto firm continued to promote its singular product in many ways. In 1957, it donated a Pearl Crown to the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., the annual event that celebrates Japanese-American friendship.
Mikimoto created the festival crown in 1956 and donated it to the festival committee for the annual crowning of the Cherry Blossom Queen.
In 2001, the company introduced the Princesse de Monaco rose, named for Princess Grace, as its motif. This was a limited edition collection representing elegant, refined beauty. A portion of its sales are still donated to the Princess Grace Foundation – USA to advance the careers of young performing artists.
In 2002, the Pearls in Motion Collection debuted. These creations are a versatile, playful and functional Mikimoto design of cultured pearls that glide to fit every mood. The patented mechanism allows each pearl to be individually repositioned along an 18k gold chain as the wearer desires, creating infinite looks from the same piece of jewelry.
The company also created crowns for early 21st Century beauty pageants including crowns for Miss Universe, Miss USA, and Miss Teen USA. The intricate designs of the Mikimoto Crowns, made with White South Sea and Akoya cultured pearls and diamonds, depict the ancient symbol of the phoenix rising that signifies status, power, and a vision of great beauty.
Mikimoto celebrated its 120th Anniversary in 2013 and, in 2014, introduced its Hello Kitty Collection to coincide with Hello Kitty’s 40th birthday year.
Today, Mikimoto cultured pearls remain in great demand as the most chic and glamorous gems a woman can own and are recognized worldwide for their superb quality and elegant design. The Mikimoto name is synonymous with superior quality at every stage, from the selection of the finest materials to expert workmanship. Each piece reflects supreme dedication, passion, and timeless elegance.
Experts in the field offer advice to those who want to judge a pearl’s quality. First there is luster: The surface glow, as well as the deep mirror-like reflection of the light, or “inner light” of a pearl, is known as luster. Nacre quality in cultured pearls improves the overall luster. Many even layers of nacre are required to create a highly defined spectrum of color. All Mikimoto pearls radiate an exceptional luster.
Surface Perfection are the tiny marks found on the surface of a pearl and are part of its natural texture. Generally, the less blemished the pearl the higher its quality and value.
There is a wide spectrum of colors that can be found in pearls, including cream, silver, pink, gold, green, blue and black. The most popular colors are white and pink rose because these hues flatter the widest range of skin tones. Regardless of color preference, pearl color should be rich, even, and emanate from deep within the pearl.
Of the many shapes available, perfectly round pearls are truly the rarest and most valuable. Exotic shapes such as teardrop, oval button, and baroque are also available and are used to create unique, exotic jewelry designs.
Pearls are measured in diameter increments of millimeters. Larger pearls are more difficult to cultivate as there is an increased likelihood that the oyster will reject the larger implanted nucleus. The Akoya pearl ranges from 3.5mm to 10mm in size. South Sea pearls start at 8mm.
With proper care, Mikimoto cultured pearls will last for generations. Organic in nature, cultured pearls should be kept away from chemicals, perspiration, cosmetics and perfumes that can damage their appearance. To protect these pearls from harm, they should be the last thing one puts on and the first to take off.
Pearls should not be stored in a security box for long periods as this may cause them to dehydrate. Mikimoto pearls are strung with a fine silk thread knotted between each pearl and should be restrung annually as the silk can become soiled and weakened.