Long prized for their beauty, pearls used to be the preserve of nobles and elites, because quality specimens that were naturally occurring were hard to come by. Ancient Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder’s enduring tale of how Cleopatra dissolved a large pearl in vinegar and downed it to win a wager and demonstrate her indifference to its extraordinary value speaks to the enormous regard for pearls in the ages past.
The Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and Sri Lanka are among the historical regions for harvesting natural pearls; in Japan, female pearl divers called ama are part of a tradition believed to span some 2,000 years. But a dwindling supply of pearls in the late 1800s—due to high demand and the overfishing of Akoya pearl oysters—encouraged the visionary Kokichi Mikimoto, a local entrepreneur, to perfect his technique for cultivating pearls. After many attempts, he produced the modern world’s first cultured hemispherical pearl on Ojima Island in 1893, which has since been renamed Mikimoto Pearl Island in the company and its founder’s honour.
The general process of creating a cultured pearl is arduous: a small nucleus is manually introduced into oysters, which secrete calcium carbonate and proteins to protect themselves from the foreign body; the resulting nacre that coats the intrusion hardens in layers over time, forming pearls. Mikimoto experimented with inserting nuclei between the Akoya pearl oyster’s outer surface and its shell, developing the process of creating cultured hemispherical pearls on a commercial scale. For his efforts, he earned a patent for this process in 1896. Further research and development over more than a decade eventually led to the creation of his now-famous spherical pearls.
Mikimoto reportedly told Emperor Meiji in 1905 when they met at Ise Shrine, near Ojima, that he wished to “adorn the necks of all women around the world with pearls”. More than a century later, his namesake brand has gone far in that endeavour. Since the first Mikimoto jewellery boutique opened in 1899 in Ginza, Tokyo, the brand has gone on to establish itself in London, New York, Paris, Mumbai, Los Angeles and Chicago. On being shown one of the brand’s cultured pearls in 1927, serial inventor Thomas Edison remarked: “There are two things which couldn’t be made at my laboratory—diamonds and pearls. It is one of the wonders of the world that you were able to culture pearls. It is something which is supposed to be biologically impossible.” In 1985, the Japan Patent Office named Mikimoto among the 10 greatest Japanese inventors, placing him in the company of the great minds who discovered sodium glutamate and vitamin B1.
Beyond the cultivation of exquisite pearls, the Japanese brand has made its mark setting them into jewellery that combines Japanese craftsmanship and style with European savoir faire, starting with the Mikimoto Gold Work Factory founded in 1907. The house went on to become the appointed jeweller to the Japanese royal family in 1924 and in recent years has unveiled a series of high jewellery collections, most recently Praise to the Sea, an aquatic-themed oeuvre that pays homage to the brand’s origins. The breadth of styles among the house’s collections—from the classic and romantic ones such as Bloom and Feather to the minimalist, contemporary and androgynous ranges such as V Code, Passionoir, M Collection, and the Comme des Garçons collaboration capsule—shows how pearls are no longer just for royals in starched ruff collars, but a versatile medium for expression and freedom.
PHOTOGRAPHY JAYA KHIDIR
ART DIRECTION MARISA XIN