For more than 4000 years pearls have been collected, sought, bought and prized as the world’s only organically produced gemstone. Long before man learned how to facet diamonds or cut emeralds, pearls were regarded as the epitome of luxury jewelry, and were only afforded to the most wealthy and influential.
For thousands of years people of all cultures sought the elusive secret of pearls – why did they grow, and how did they grow. Theories ranged from dewdrops and tears of the God’s, to the most commonly accepted urban legend of a trapped grain of sand. But until the end of the 19th century scientists and shell farmers were only able to produce blister pearls, or pearls attached to the inside of mollusk shells.
This all changed when British-expatriate marine biologist William Sawville-Kent developed a way to stimulate a mollusk to produce whole pearls in Australia. His technique involved planting a rounded bead inside a mollusk. This had been attempted before, but he discovered the real secret. Along with the bead he implanted a small piece of donor mollusk mantle tissue. The perfect combination was born. This small piece of tissue acted like a catalyst of pearl production. It grew into a pearl sac which enveloped the bead, coated it with nacre and produced a pearl.
William Sawville-Kent died shortly after discovering this secret technique, but not before sharing his secret with two Japanese nationals; a Mr. Tatsuhei Mise and Mr. Tokishi Nishikawa. Mise and Nishikawa returned to Japan with this technique and immediately filed for patents. At this same time pearl farmer Kokichi Mikimoto was culturing blister pearls but desperately seeking the secret to whole pearl culturing. The secret had finally come to Japan!
After multiple court battles Kokichi Mikimoto finally succeeded in securing a patent for whole pearl cultivation in 1916. The cultured pearl industry – it was called the Mikimoto Pearl Company.
For more than 50 years the Japanese closely guarded their national secret and maintained a virtual monopoly of pearl cultivation and marketing. Even ventures outside of Japan in Australia, French Polynesia, Thailand, and Burma were under the direction of Japanese grafting technicians and operational specialists. Technicians swore an oath to never reveal the secret of pearl culture.
This well-kept secret remained with the Japanese until the late 1950s and early 1960s when other countries finally developed the same methods for pearl culturing. China began culturing akoya pearls in the 1960s as did Tahiti with black South Sea pearls. Australia soon followed suit producing the largest and most valuable of all cultured pearls – South Sea pearls from the Pinctada maxima pearl oyster.
Today pearl farms are found all over the world and the Japanese dominance over the industry is all but gone. There are now thousands of pearl farms in China, hundreds in French Polynesia, many in Australia Vietnam and Korea, and even some small operations in India, Venezuela and Mexico. Until recently there was even a freshwater pearling operation in Tennessee.
This wide-spread pearl culturing technique has finally put owning fine pearl jewelry within the reach of nearly everyone. Freshwater pearls can be purchased for as little as a few dollars a strand for low-grade but genuine pearls. High quality freshwater and akoya pearls can now be secured for just a few hundred dollars. Even Tahitian pearls no longer cost tens of thousands of dollars per strand. Pearls are now a beauty afforded to everyone.