Mikimoto Kōkichi (御木本 幸吉. Japanese); (March 10, 1858 – September 21, 1954) was a Japanese pearl farmer, inventor of the cultured pearl and businessman who developed the commercial production of cultured pearls. Mikimoto was born the son of a noodle-shop owner in the town of Toba, Japan, and left school at age 13 to help support his family. In 1890, soon after he established an oyster farm, he met a marine biologist, Kakichi Mitsukiri, who suggested a way in which oysters could be artificially stimulated to produce pearls. Mikimoto and his wife experimented for three years before they succeeded in producing the first cultured half-pearl, and it was 1917 before he was able to produce spherical pearls that resembled the highest-quality natural pearls.
Mikimoto realized that many of his customers were foreigners and set about developing a global market for cultured pearls. He opened a store and a jewelry factory in Tokyo, and hired the best designers to work there. Orders began to arrive from all over the world. In 1913, Mikimoto opened a store in London, followed by establishments in Paris, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Shanghai, and Bombay. Mikimoto devoted himself to the advancement of the cultured pearl industry in Japan, while traveling the world to showcase pearl jewelry at international fairs and expositions. The name of Mikimoto became synonymous with elegance and high quality, and was one of the first Japanese brands to attain an international presence and recognition.
Kokichi Mikimoto was born in Toba, Mie, Shima Province (present-day Mie Prefecture), Japan, in 1858, the eldest son of the owner of an udon (noodle) shop. Mikimoto studied in a tiny one-room school until the age of 13, when he left school to help support his family by selling vegetables. His fascination with pearls began during his early childhood, when he watched the pearl divers of Ise, Japan, and saw the treasures they brought back to shore. In 1881, Mikimoto married Ume, the eldest daughter of a master-swordsman from the Toba clan.
In 1888, Mikimoto used a loan to establish a pearl oyster farm with his wife and business partner, Ume, at the Shinmei inlet, on Ago Bay in what was then Shima province. In 1890, while visiting the third Domestic Fair in Ueno Park, Tokyo, he met Kakichi Mitsukiri (1857-1909), a renowned authority in marine biology at the University of Tokyo, who had studied at Yale and Johns Hopkins universities. Mitsukiri suggested an idea for an experimental process which could stimulate Akoya oysters to grow pearls artificially by inserting an irritant inside their shells. Mikimoto and his wife began experimenting on oysters at their pearl farm in Shinmei, and at what is now called “Mikimoto Pearl Island” in Toba. Months passed without any appreciable results, and an epidemic of red tide plankton wiped out nearly the entire oyster crop.
Almost bankrupt, they persevered and tried a new irritant, semiglobular mother-of-pearl beads. On July 11, 1893, after many failures, they succeeded in growing the first semi-spherical cultured pearl. Mikimoto introduced these semi-circular pearls at a marine products exposition in Norway in 1897, and began an export business. While he was preparing to open a new pearl farm, his wife Ume died suddenly at the age of 32, leaving five young children to care for. Another outbreak of red tide almost destroyed the oyster harvest a second time. In 1905, Mikimoto discovered that an oyster had produced the first completely spherical artificial pearl, almost indistinguishable from a natural pearl. It was 1913 before commercially viable harvests were obtained, and 1917 before Mikimoto was able to produce spherical pearls that were indistinguishable from the highest quality natural ones.
Mikimoto did not know that his son-in-law, government biologist Tokichi Nishikawa, and a carpenter, Tatsuhei Mise, had each independently discovered the secret of pearl culturing—that inserting a piece of oyster epithelial membrane (the lip of mantle tissue) with a nucleus of shell or metal into an oyster's body or mantle causes the tissue to form a pearl sack. The sack produces nacre, which coats the nucleus, thus creating a pearl. Mise received a patent in 1907 for his grafting needle. When Nishikawa applied in the same year, he realized that Mise had already secured a patent. In a compromise, the pair agreed to cooperate, calling their discovery the "Mise-Nishikawa method." Mikimoto had received a patent in 1896 for his method of producing hemispherical pearls, or mabes, and a 1908 patent for culturing in mantle tissue, but he could not use the Mise-Nishikawa method without invalidating his own patents. Mikimoto then altered his patent application to cover a technique to make round pearls in mantle tissue, which was granted in 1916. With this technicality out of the way, Mikimoto's business began to expand rapidly, and he was able to buy the rights to the Mise-Niskikawa method, creating a monopoly on the technique of culturing pearls. Mikimoto also invented the “pearl basket,” a metal rack with pockets to hold the developing oysters, which can be pulled out of the water for periodic cleaning of the shells or to move the oysters away from storms and red tides.
Mikimoto observed that many of his pearls were bought by foreign sailors and tourists, and decided to open a shop in the entertainment district of Ginza, in Tokyo. His shop was relocated to its present location in Ginza 4-chome in 1906. In 1907, he established the Mikimoto Gold Work Factory in Tokyo’s Tsukuji area, staffed with a team of specialized craftsmen. He also invited jewelry designers to work exclusively for the Ginza store, and created a special display room for them. The fame of the Mikimoto Pearl store spread rapidly throughout Japan and to other parts of the world, and orders began coming from everywhere. Responding to the expectations of his customers, Mikimoto opened a store in London in 1913, followed by establishments in Paris, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Shanghai, and Bombay.
The name of Mikimoto became one of the first Japanese brands to attain an international presence and recognition. Mikimoto took advantage of every opportunity to personally promote the beauty and elegance of his pearls, presenting his works in exhibitions throughout the world. At the 1926 Philadelphia Sesquicentennial International Exposition, he displayed The Pearl Pagoda, which was studded with 12,760 Mikimoto pearls and took 750 artisans six months to complete. For the 1937 Paris International Exhibition, he displayed a brooch which could be worn in many different ways, using different clasps. At the New York World’s Fair in 1939, Mikimoto presented a replica of the "Liberty Bell," one-third the size of the original Liberty Bell and covered with 12,250 pearls. These works are now housed in the Pearl Museum at Mikimoto Pearl Island in Toba, along with a collection of antique natural pearl jewelry and “The Boss’s String of Pearls,” a necklace of 49 large pearls which Mikimoto himself selected over a period of ten years (the center pearl is an astounding 14 millimeters in diameter).
Mikimoto once said to the Emperor of Japan, “I would like to adorn the necks of all the women in the world with pearls.”
Mikimoto had to constantly fight allegations that his pearls were only “imitations” of real pearls, despite scientific reports to the contrary. In the 1930s, to counter many imitators who were selling inferior cultured pearls, he built a bonfire in the plaza in front of the Kobe Chamber of Commerce and threw an endless succession of inferior cultured pearls into the flames to draw the world’s attention to the importance of maintaining high quality. He also founded the Japan Pearl Producer’s Association. By 1937, Mikimoto was operating pearl farms in ten Japanese locations a total area of 40,830 acres, cultivating ten million oysters and breeding three million more every year.
Just before his death, Mikimoto was awarded the Order of Merit (First Class) by the Japanese government. On September 21, 1954, Kokichi Mikimoto died at the age of 96. Posthumously, he was awarded the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Sacred Treasure.
The important things in life are wisdom, and good fortune, which brings success. If a man can also have long life he can have truly great success. (Kokichi Mikimoto)
At the Mikimoto Pearl Museum in Toba, visitors can read a 1927 letter from Thomas Edison to Kokichi Mikimoto, written after they visited together at Edison’s West Orange, New Jersey home and addressing him, “Dear Kokichi.” Edison thanked him for the visit and congratulated him on receiving an award from the Japanese government. During their meeting, Edison had said that “it is one of the wonders of the world that you were able to culture pearls.” Kokichi humbly responded, “If you were the moon of the world of inventors, I would simply be one of the many tiny stars.”
According to archaeologists, divers were swimming deep into the ocean to harvest natural pearls as early as 2250 B.C.E.. Natural pearls were so scarce, and pearls of high quality so rare, that they became symbols of wealth and status along with the most precious gemstones. As early as the twelfth century, the Chinese were producing flat, hollow blister pearls by inserting tiny lead images of Buddha into oysters. Kokichi Mikimoto’s dedication to the scientific culture of artificial pearls made beautiful, high-quality pearls available to ordinary people, and created a major national industry in Japan. Today pearls are cultured in numerous locations all over Asia and the Pacific, and in Australia, producing pearls of different size and colors and making pearl jewelry more attractive than ever.
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