Cultured pearl and diamond necklace, Mikimoto

7 Things You Need to Know about Kokichi Mikimoto

By Jessica Diamond
Very few individuals have changed the jewelry landscape. But Kokichi Mikimoto did, with a moment that proved seismic 125 years ago. In 1893 he succeeded in culturing a semi-spherical pearl. A decade on he would begin producing perfectly spherical pearls of a quality and quantity that would expose their lustre to a whole new global audience.

1. Kokichi Mikimoto was born on 25 January 1858 in Toba, a small town on the Japanese peninsula of Shima. His father was a noodle-shop owner and worked hard to feed his children, supplementing his income by selling vegetables and charcoal – a stoic work ethic that was instilled in Mikimoto from a young age. Natural Ise pearls were Toba’s most famous local product, but were becoming increasingly scarce due to aggressive harvesting of the oyster beds. This gave Mikimoto the idea to culture his own.

Cultured pearl and diamond necklace, Mikimoto. Sold for CHF 20,000.

2. Before 1893 Mikimoto was plagued by financial difficulties and faced intense public scepticism of his strange trial-and-error experiments. Oyster eating octopuses and the repeated damage to his Akoya pearl oyster beds from red algae nearly destroyed him. Today the island where he eventually succeeded is now known as Mikimoto Pearl Island.

Cultured Pearl, Emerald and Diamond Choker Necklace, Designed by Carolina Herrera for Mikimoto. Sold for HK$300,000.

3. As early as 1899 Mikimoto opened a store specialising in pearl jewelry in Tokyo’s Ginza district, an area that was already the epicentre of the latest Western fashion trends. In 1906 he moved the store to Ginza 4-chome, where it has remained ever since. Surrounded by Japanese style buildings the Western-style Mikimoto building made from white stone was known in the area as the ‘pearl-coloured store’. From the very beginning its interior was unusually modern with electric fans in summer and heaters in winter to encourage customers to linger. An anteroom on the second floor for invited guests was a precursor to today’s VIP rooms.

4. During a tour of Europe and the US in 1927 he had the opportunity to meet inventor Thomas Edison at his home in New York. ‘This isn’t a cultured pearl, it’s a real pearl,’ said Edison of the Mikimoto pearl that Kokichi presented him. ‘It’s one of the wonders of the world that you were able to culture pearls. It is something which is supposed to be biologically impossible!’ Their meeting was reported in the New York Times and Mikimoto and his pearls became a household name overnight.

Seed Pearl, Sapphire and Diamond Necklace, Mikimoto
Seed Pearl, Sapphire and Diamond Necklace, Mikimoto. Sold for HK$112,500.

6. Despite great fame and fortune during his lifetime (Mikimoto died in September 1954), he remained humble and unaffected. His philosophy for general well-being was ‘three bowls of rice for breakfast, two for lunch and one for supper, and to sleep well, together with a sleeping stomach.’ He liked fresh seafood, root vegetables and never missed listening to the news.

Cultured Pearl and Diamond Necklace, Mikimoto
Cultured Pearl and Diamond Necklace, Mikimoto. Sold for HK$125,000.

7. In the Mikimoto Museum, on Pearl Island, where the first ever cultured pearl was found, is the original Mikimoto single strand pearl necklace. Known as Taisho-ren or the ‘Boss’s Necklace’ it is made up of 49 large, supremely lustrous, perfectly matched pearls, the centre one being 14mm in diameter. All were hand chosen by Mikimoto himself over a period of 10 years, and it remains the template for all classic Mikimoto pearl strands.

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