Mikimoto Creates First Cultured Pearls

On this day in 1893, Japanese entrepreneur Mikimoto Kokichi created the world’s first cultured pearl, giving rise to the pearl industry and the luxury pearl company Mikimoto.

Born in 1858 in Shima Province, Japan (present-day Mie prefecture) as the first son of an udon shop owner, Mikimoto left school at the age of 13 to begin selling vegetables to support his family. As he traveled the coast selling his vegetables, Mikimoto would see pearl divers surfacing with their treasures. It was that early experience that sparked his fascination with pearls. In 1888 he secured a loan that allowed the then-30-year-old to start a pearl oyster farm at the Shinmei inlet on Ago Bay with his wife and partner, Ume.

For years, Mikimoto attempted to “grow pearls” on his oyster farm, but was unsuccessful. He was close to bankruptcy—and to abandoning his dream—when he created the first hemispherical cultured pearl, or mabe, on 11 July 1893. It was a major triumph for Mikimoto—and for onset of pearl production. Mikimoto introduced his cultured “farmed” pearls at an exposition in Norway, and then started an export business. It took him another 12 years to produce perfectly spherical pearls indistinguishable from the highest quality natural ones.

At the same time as Mikimoto was experimenting with farming spherical pearls, however, so too was government biologist Tokishi Nishikawa and carpenter Tatsuhei Mise, who had learned the secret to spherical pearl production from British marine biologist William Saville-Kent. The secret was inserting a piece of oyster epithelial membrane, with a nucleus of shell or metal, into an oyster’s shell, causing tissue to form a pearl sack. The sack then coats the nucleus with nacre, a composite material also known as mother of pearl. Nishikawa and Mikimoto together received the patent for this method of pearl production.

In 1899 the first Mikimoto pearl shop opened in the fashionable Ginza district of Tokyo, quickly expanding internationally to locations in London, Paris, New York, Chicago, Boston, and beyond. The new technology allowed Japan’s cultured pearl industry to expand rapidly by the 1910s and by 1935 there were some 350 pearl farms in Japan producing some 10 million cultured pearls each year.