A pearl is a hard object produced within the soft tissue (specifically the mantle) of a living shelled mollusk. Just like the shell of a clam, a pearl is composed of calcium carbonate in minute crystalline form, which has been deposited in concentric layers. The ideal pearl is perfectly round and smooth, but many other shapes (baroque pearls) occur. The finest quality natural pearls have been highly valued as gemstones and objects of beauty for many centuries. Because of this, pearl has become a metaphor for something rare, fine, admirable and valuable.
The most valuable pearls occur spontaneously in the wild, but are extremely rare. These wild pearls are referred to as natural pearls. Cultured or farmed pearls from pearl oysters and freshwater mussels make up the majority of those currently sold. Imitation pearls are also widely sold in inexpensive jewelry, but the quality of their iridescence is usually very poor and is easily distinguished from that of genuine pearls. Pearls have been harvested and cultivated primarily for use in jewelry, but in the past were also used to adorn clothing. They have also been crushed and used in cosmetics, medicines and paint formulations.
Whether wild or cultured, gem-quality pearls are almost always nacreous and iridescent, like the interior of the shell that produces them. However, almost all species of shelled mollusks are capable of producing pearls (formally referred to as “calcareous concretions” by some sources) of lesser shine or less spherical shape. Although these may also be legitimately referred to as “pearls” by gemological labs and also under U.S. Federal Trade Commission rules, and are formed in the same way, most of them have no value except as curiosities.
Natural pearls are nearly 100% calcium carbonate and conchiolin. It is thought that natural pearls form under a set of accidental conditions when a microscopic intruder or parasite enters a bivalve mollusk and settles inside the shell. The mollusk, irritated by the intruder, forms a pearl sac of external mantle tissue cells and secretes the calcium carbonate and conchiolin to cover the irritant.
This secretion process is repeated many times, thus producing a pearl. Natural pearls come in many shapes, with perfectly round ones being comparatively rare. Fine quality natural pearls are very rare jewels. Their values are determined similarly to those of other precious gems, according to size, shape, color, quality of surface, orient and luster.
Single natural pearls are often sold as collectors’ items, or set as centerpieces in unique jewelry. Very few matched strands of natural pearls exist, and those that do often sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. (In 1917, jeweler Pierre Cartier purchased the Fifth Avenue mansion that is now the New York Cartier store in exchange for a matched double strand of natural pearls Cartier had been collecting for years; at the time, it was valued at $1 million!!!!!
Today, the cultured pearls on the market can be divided into two categories. The first category covers the beaded cultured pearls, including Akoya, South Sea and Tahiti. These pearls are gonad grown, and usually one pearl is grown at a time. This limits the number of pearls at a harvest period. The pearls are usually harvested after one year for akoya, 2–4 years for Tahitian and South Sea, and 2–7 years for freshwater. This perliculture process was first developed by the British biologist William Saville-Kent who passed the information along to Tatsuhei Mise and Tokichi Nishikawa from Japan.
The second category includes the non-beaded freshwater cultured pearls, like the Biwa or Chinese pearls. As they grow in the mantle, where on each wing up to 25 grafts can be implanted, these pearls are much more frequent and saturate the market completely. An impressive improvement in quality has taken place in the last ten years when the former rice-grain-shaped pebbles are compared with the near round pearls of today. In the last two years large near perfect round bead nucleated pearls up to 15mm in diameter have been produced with metallic luster.
Despite the common misperception, Mikimoto did not discover the process of pearl culture. The accepted process of pearl culture was developed by the British Biologist William Saville-Kent in Australia and brought to Japan by Tokichi Nishikawa and Tatsuhei Mise. Nishikawa was granted the patent in 1916, and married the daughter of Mikimoto. Mikimoto was able to use Nishikawa’s technology. After the patent was granted in 1916, the technology was immediately commercially applied to akoya pearl oysters in Japan in 1916. Mise’s brother was the first to produce a commercial crop of pearls in the akoya oyster. Mitsubishi’s Baron Iwasaki immediately applied the technology to the south sea pearl oyster in 1917 in the Philippines, and later in Buton, and Palau. Mitsubishi was the first to produce a cultured south sea pearl – although it was not until 1928 that the first small commercial crop of pearls was successfully produced.
The original Japanese cultured pearls, known as akoya pearls, are produced by a species of small pearl oyster, Pinctada fucata martensii, which is no bigger than 6 to 8 cm (2.4 to 3.1 in) in size, hence akoya pearls larger than 10 mm in diameter are extremely rare and highly priced. Today, a hybrid mollusk is used in both Japan and China in the production of akoya pearls.
In 1899, the first Mikimoto pearl shop opened in the fashionable Ginza district of Tokyo selling natural seed pearls and half round pearls. The Mikimoto business expanded internationally, opening stores in London (1913).
By 1935, the Japanese pearl industry was facing oversupply issues and plummeting prices for Japanese cultured pearls. Mikimoto promoted Japanese pearls in Europe and the USA to counteract falling prices. He publicly burnt tons of low-quality pearls as a publicity stunt to establish a reputation that the Mikimoto company only sold high-quality cultured pearls.
After World War II, Mikimoto opened stores in Paris, New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Shanghai and Bombay, and was thus one of the first Japanese brands to attain an international presence and recognition.
Mikimoto had to constantly fight allegations that his pearls were only “imitations” of real pearls, despite scientific reports to the contrary. Mikimoto took advantage of every opportunity to personally promote his pearls, and took part in the 1926 Philadelphia World Exposition in which he displayed a replica of the “Liberty Bell” covered with pearls.
Mikimoto was the official jeweler of the Miss USA (2003–2008), Miss Universe (2002–2007) and Miss Teen USA (2002–2008) pageants, under the Miss Universe Organization.
In 2010/2011, the company’s estimated total sales were €300 million.!