Kokichi Mikimoto (1858 – 1954) was born in the port town of Toba on Japan’s Shima peninsula in 1858, the eldest son of a noodle shop owner. From an early age Mikimoto was fascinated with the pearl farming that he saw in town but as he got older he became aware that these beautiful natural pearls were becoming scarcer as the years went on. He began to research the art of culturing fine quality pearls and explored different methods of kick staring the process artificially. He was not the first person to do this, others in Australia and Japan had already proved it was possible however Mikimoto dedicated himself to refining and perfecting the cultivation techniques. He overcame many failures and obstacles including oyster eating octopi and a ‘red tide’ of bacteria that threatened the survival of his oyster beds.
In 1893 Mikimoto’s wife lifted a basket of akoya oysters up from the sea for inspection and on opening one up she found a beautiful pearl inside. These first pearls were mabé pearls and it would take another twelve years before Mikimoto successfully created a perfectly spherical pearl. Eventually though, after years of trial and error, they had found a way to create pearls.
The business was based on Ojima Island and in 1896 Mikimoto applied for, and was granted, his first patent. In 1899 he opened his first boutique in Tokyo’s fashionable shopping district, Ginza and in 1910 he created a traditional Japanese fan and screen covered with his cultured pearls for the Anglo-Japanese Fair in London. Creating show stopping centre pieces smothered with his pearls was a clever and effective advertising move and drew much attention to his work. At the 1926 World’s Fair Mikimoto exhibited a five tiered pagoda, elegantly modelled after the Horyuji Temple, set with over 12,000 pearls and in 1939 visitors to the New York World’s Fair were able to marvel at a replica of the Liberty Bell, covered in Mikimoto pearls. By the 1920s he had found a way to produce a pearl harvest of commercial quantity and during the following decade, his cultured pearls really began to gain momentum. Further boutiques were opened in London and Paris and Mikimoto continued to work to advance and refine his techniques. He was able to go on and culture South Sea pearls and his name gradually became synonymous with the finest quality cultured pearl jewellery.
Almost 100 years after cultured pearl jewellery became a commercial reality the Mikimoto company are still producing huge quantities of pearls every year. Today the Bond Street and Place Vendôme boutiques remain and, along with many authorised retail outlets throughout the world, they sell designs ranging from the classic single strand necklace to more imaginative pieces including chandelier earrings and contemporary statement rings.