A Very Short History of Cultured Pearls
At the end of the 19th century, Kokichi Mikimoto rattled the natural pearl world with the introduction of cultured pearls. Until that time, pearls were a rarity, found serendipitously in pearl-producing mollusks, primarily from the Persian Gulf. With overfishing, they became rarer and rarer–and more expensive. Then Mikimoto found a way to encourage mollusks to lay their nacre over a small, round bead of mother-of-pearl inserted into the shell.
ABOVE: Elegance was once defined by strands of round, white pearls. But these flattened, button-like pink pearls, accented with white gold, completely flip that outmoded idea on its head. Photo Betty Sue King. Courtesy Betty Sue King, King’s Ransom.
After the pearls were exhibited at several international fairs, sales of the new cultured pearls exploded. This is the reason pearl strands became iconic in high school photos of many young women in the 1940s.
Until about 40 years ago, the Japanese had a virtual monopoly on the creation of cultured pearls, explains author Fred Ward in his book, Pearls. (affiliate link). But then several events converged, he says. Japanese industries and pearl farmers polluted the county’s lakes, bays, and coasts; the oysters started dying; and pearl production fell. The Japanese began pulling the oysters out of the water sooner, trying to harvest the crop before it deteriorated or died. As a result, the nacre on the pearls was thinner, and often the quality dropped. (Nacre is the pearl coating oysters coat on a round shell bead inserted into the mollusk.) There was also growing competition from several other pearl-producing countries.
Cultured Pearls Across the Globe
According to Ward, the Japanese had started partnerships with firms in Australia as early as 1956, using Australian bays and boats and Japanese culturing technology. Their agreements allowed the Japanese pearl companies to keep their technology secret, although they split the profits with their partners. But industrial secrets are hard to keep, and the partnered companies became restive under the restraints. Over time, those restraints weakened until the Australian producers of South Seas pearls began culturing and marketing their own product in direct competition with the Japanese.
There were also the beautiful black Tahitian pearls from French Polynesia. These astonishing pearls, cultured in larger, black-lipped oysters, were huge—12 to 13 millimeters and larger–with beautiful overtones of yellow, green, and pink. Tahitian and South Seas pearls were larger than Japanese Akoyas. But also, because they were grown in warmer waters, the oysters laid nacre onto the shell bead nuclei faster than did the oysters in colder Japanese waters. As a result, during the same time in the water, South Seas and Tahitian pearls were coated with heavier layers of nacre.
Japan Partners with China
In efforts to maintain production despite worsening water conditions at home, Japanese pearl producers partnered with firms in China to produce freshwater and saltwater pearls. But then in the 1980s, Chinese pearl producers came into the market with their own freshwater product, tiny “Rice Krispie” pearls. These strands were ridiculously inexpensive, but the quality was poor, so no one worried much about the novelty. Then the Chinese got serious.
The Chinese, working with the Japanese, hybridized a new freshwater mollusk that resulted in higher grade pearls. And as the quality of Chinese cultured pearls went up (becoming larger and rounder) and the volume of pearls produced grew, everyone else in the pearl industry got a bit nervous. Today, literally tons of Chinese freshwater pearls are produced. They, and not the Japanese, have become the leading producers of cultured pearls.
The bounty of pearls today is nearly endless: any color, any shape, from tiny to huge, smooth or crinkly surfaced, nucleated and non-nucleated, with glorious overtones. It’s a pearl lover’s dream come true. You can never have too many pearls.
Sharon Elaine Thompson is a GG and FGA who has been writing about gemstones and jewelry for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 1987. She also writes a line of birthstone romance novels under the name Liz Hartley.