Little Bits of History


Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 11, 2012

Mikimoto Kōkichi

July 11, 1893: Mikimoto Kōkichi creates a hemispherical cultured pearl. Kōkichi was born January 25, 1858 in Toba, Shima Province, Japan (today, Mie prefecture). He was the eldest son of a udon shop owner(udons are noodles used in soup). He left school at age 13 to sell vegetables to help support the family. While selling his wares, he watched pearl divers of Ise unloading their pearls and became fascinated with the enterprise.

When he reached the age of 30, Kōkichi and his wife along with a partner named Ume got a loan to begin a pearl oyster farm. Five years later, after many failures and near bankruptcy, the first hemispherical pearl was produced. Kōkichi introduced this wonder to a marine products show held in Norway in 1897 and began an export business. After twelve more years, he had perfected the creation of perfectly spherical pearls, indistinguishable from the highest quality natural ones. It was the 1920s before he had commercially viable harvests. Others were also working on methods to develop perfect cultured pearls. Three Japanese men worked together and changed the business in the island nation. By 1935 there were 350 pearl farms throughout Japan and they together produced about 10 million pearls annually.

A cultured pearl is a pearl created under controlled conditions. A pearl is formed when an oyster is injured. These are saltwater clams or marine bivalve mollusks. They have strong linings to the shell layer called nacre. If the mantle tissue is injured in some way, the response of the clam is to excrete nacre to heal the wound. In nature, if this works just perfectly, a pearl is formed. For the pearl farmer, the injury is done in such a way as to assure it is the perfect type of damage. A tissue graft form a donor oyster is inserted to help form a pearl sac. The mollusk then secretes calcium carbonate in the form of nacre.

Pearls are one of the oldest known gems prized by humans. They are the only gem made by a living animal. The oldest surviving pearl necklace is about 2000 years old and was found in the sarcophagus of a Persian woman. Pearls have been used to broadcast wealth and social status as well as being used as a good luck charm to ward off evil spirits. They were worn in Middle East and Asian societies as early as 3500 BC. There are rumors about a Roman general paying for an entire political campaign with a single pearl earring. Cleopatra was said to have dissolved a pearl in a glass of wine to prove her love to Marc Antonius. Today, 99% of pearls sold worldwide are of the cultured rather than natural variety.

Not always can flowers, pearls, poetry, protestations, nor even home in another heart, content the awful soul that dwells in clay. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Go boldly forth, my simple lay, / Whose accents flow with artless ease, / Like orient pearls at random strung. – Sir William Jones

Errors, like straws, upon the surface flow; he who would search for pearls must dive below.´- John Dryden

Will change the pebbles of our puddly thought to orient pearls. – Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas

Also on this day:

Terracotta Army – In 1975, the Terracotta Army is discovered.
Skylab – In 1979, Skylab disintegrated.
Pistols at Dawn – In 1804, the Hamilton-Burr duel takes place.


One Response

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  1. Bobby Dias said, on July 11, 2012 at 10:55 am

    One teacher of mine said that Mikimoto Kōkichi and his family taught many to appreciate the beauty of what man creates that was previously supposed to be created only by “nature”.

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