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Johannes Vermeer "Girl with a pearl earring"

Source: Free encyclopedia "Wikipedia (Wikipedia)"

History of pearls

Pearls are also called "moon drops" or "mermaid tears" and have fascinated people around the world since ancient times. It is said to have been known in Egypt as early as 3200 BC, and it is famous that Cleopatra drank it dissolved in vinegar.

 There are records of pearls being used in China as early as 2300 B.C., in Persia as early as the 7th century B.C., and in Rome as early as the 3rd century B.C.

 We would like to introduce the history of pearls, which are said to be the world's oldest gemstone.

Ancient natural pearl

 It is believed that the oldest region in the world that dived into the sea and collected pearls was the Arabian Peninsula. Among them, the island of Baharain was the center of pearl collecting. Successive dynasties in ancient Mesopotamia loved pearls, and a large number of pearls have been unearthed from the ruins of those times.

 Another source of pearls in the Orient was South India. The birthplace of pearls was the Bay of Mannar, where beautiful pearls were produced and dedicated to the dynasty. In the first century, the people of the ancient Roman Empire began trading with India, bringing pearls and gems to Rome.

Cleopatra and pearls

 Cleopatra, who became the last queen of Egypt, had two of the largest pearls in history. Cleopatra told Antonius, a Roman politician, that he could throw a lavish banquet like nothing he had ever seen before. Antonius insisted that he couldn't do that, and the two ended up making a bet. Cleopatra then gave a banquet, but it was not so different from the usual banquet. When Antonius made fun of it, Cleopatra put one of the world's largest pearl earrings she wore in her ear in vinegar, melted the pearl, and drank it all in one go. Thus, the bet was a victory for Cleopatra.


Jacob Jordaens 1653


Painting on October 12, 1492, landing at San Salvator Island in Columbus

The Pearl of the Age of Discovery

 Marco Polo reported in his "The Travels of the East" that the Orient could produce beautiful pearls in India and Japan, and that the European countries of the Age of Discovery were the most beautiful in the world,

We headed east to the Orient.

 In 1498 Columbus of Spain arrived in Venezuela on his third voyage and discovered the pearl. And so Venezuela became a new pearl production area, replacing the Orient.

 Meanwhile, the Portuguese Vasco da Gama reached India and discovered the pearl. They also expanded into the island of Ceylon to harvest pearls.

This is how pearls from around the world were collected and distributed in Europe.

British pearl collecting

 In 1796, Britain colonized the coastal area of Ceylon, and by the mid-19th century, it had gained control of the Arabian Gulf (Persian Gulf).

 As the British came to dominate, the Persian Gulf was the world's largest pearl-gathering fishery. In the Orient, pearls were the mark of kings and immensely popular, and so were the queens of Europe.


Elizabeth I

"A Victory in the Battle of Armada" by George Gower

Japanese natural pearl

 Ancient Japan, like other countries, was a major producer of Akoya pearls. In ancient times, the Japanese used pearls as a morning tribute to China, and pearls were one of Japan's oldest exports. The history of Japanese pearls can also be found in the "Gishi Wajinden" and the "Gokansho".

 In the Nara period, pearls became an integral part of the Emperor's coat of arms and were a symbol of high rank, and at the end of the 13th century, Marco Polo's The Travels of the East described Japan as a land of gold and pearls, and Europeans became aware of the Japanese pearl. After that, Japan began a period of seclusion, and the fact that Japan was a pearl producer was forgotten by the Europeans for a while, so that the country did not get caught up in the world's battle for pearls.

Edo-era pearls

 In the Edo period, the Chinese and Dutch trading with Japan noticed the Japanese pearls. In the first half of the Edo period, pearls were produced in Omura Bay, Kagoshima Bay, and Ago Bay, and most Japanese people were indifferent to pearls, but the people in the region knew that pearls could be traded and most of them were exported.

 During the Edo period, poppy pearls made from Akoya shells were used as medicine, and when demand for pearls emerged, Akoya shells were harvested all over the country. Among them, the Omura (Nagasaki) clan had the exclusive business of collecting akoa shellfish for export and medicinal use, which became a financial source for the clan.

Meiji era pearls

 In 1868, Japan entered the Meiji era, and the new Meiji government was faced with an extreme trade deficit and the urgent need to earn foreign currency due to the advocacy of industrial expansion. It was in this context that researchers in fisheries science turned their attention to pearls. In 1893, Yukikichi Mikimoto succeeded in cultivating semi-circular pearls attached to the inner surface of the shell, based on a hint of Chinese semi-circular pearls with shells. It was called jisaki-shiki, and the shellfish were bred and harvested by sea women.

 In 1904, Tatsuhei Mise and Toyokichi Nishikawa devised a method called the peace method, which is the basic principle of pearl cultivation today, to form pearls by attaching a mantle to the nucleus, and succeeded in cultivating round pearls.

 In 1916, Masayo Fujita commercialized the cultivation of large-sized pearls (at that time) exceeding 5mm in size in Sukumo City, Kochi Prefecture, establishing the technology of pearl farming in Japan.

Pearl Farming in Unknown Kochi

 With the success of Fujita's pearl cultivation, the name of Kochi's pearls was limited to the whole country. However, in August 1920, the Bay of Shukumo was hit by an unprecedented flood, all aquaculture rafts were washed away, the seabed became a muddy sea, and the fishing grounds were close to being closed. Yuzo Hayashi, the investor and president of the company, died the following year, and the "History of Sukumo's Personality" stated the following What would have happened if there had been no flood and the pearl cultivation business in Sukumo had continued to develop smoothly?The current map of the pearl world has been completely redrawn, and it is thought that the Hayashi Kingdom may have emerged...Sukumo is the birthplace of cultured pearls, which is proud to be in the world, but it is really regrettable that this fact is not known not only in the world but also in Japan and within the prefecture.  However, it is the pearls born here that will shock the world's pearl dealers.



ミキモト パリ裁判

The sentence of the Mikimoto Paris Trial (1924)

Cultured pearls and natural pearls

 Commercial production of pearls in Japan began in earnest in 1916. At that time, the 5mm and 6mm models were the mainstream, and most of them were intended for overseas markets. They were sold in London and Paris for less than natural pearls. European pearl merchants at the time said that cultured round pearls were almost indistinguishable from natural pearls, so there was no need to distinguish them, and many cultured pearls were sold mixed with natural pearls.In 1921 London was scooped up that cultured pearls had found their way into the London market, causing anxiety and upset among pearl merchants and owners. It has made an official statement that the sale of cultured pearls as pearls by a reputable jeweler in London is a misstatement. The cultured pearl ruckus also took off in France, causing a commotion that temporarily shut down the pearl market in Paris. Japanese pearls shocked the pearl syndicates in Europe, which led to a movement against cultured pearls and even led to a court case. However, the inability to determine with certainty between natural and cultured pearls led pearlology researchers to conclude that cultured pearls are real pearls.   In 1929, Wall Street stock prices crashed and the global Great Depression began. The rise of cultured pearls in Japan devastated the European natural pearl market, leaving the people of the Bahá'ín Islands and the Arabian Gulf region without their only industry, the pearl industry.

Gabriel "Coco" Chanel and pearls

 Natural pearls crashed in price in 1930 and remained untradable in Europe. It was Gabriel "Coco" Chanel who became its savior. Chanel loved pearls so much that her little black dress with pearls became a staple and was overwhelmingly supported by women. However, she was also the one who popularized the field of "costume jewelry" (imitation accessories). Her preferred use was to use a combination of imitation and real pearls. It blurred the line between the real and the imitation, and the pearl went from being a symbol of privilege to an accessory to go with the clothes. The 1920s was the era of Art Deco, when Chanel flourished, and this art trend was simultaneously in vogue in Paris, New York and London. Art Deco pursued a symmetrical, functional beauty and aspired to a standardized product, but this was the beginning of the era of mass production. Japanese pearls were a symbol of uniform standards and mass production, making them perfect for necklaces. However, the emphasis is now on it being a pearl necklace, not natural, cultured or imitation.

Japan's pearl export industry in the pre-war period

 As pearl necklaces became more and more popular than ever before, the production of cultured pearls in Japan also increased rapidly. After a brief decline due to the Great Depression, production reached its pre-war high in 1938. In the 1930s, as the Sino-Japanese War intensified and the people were forced to work harder and consume less, the pearl industry faced a period of hardship.


Pearl collecting scenery in Toba

"Toba Digital Archives"

The Pearl Industry in the Postwar Era

 In 1945, Japan agreed to accept the Potsdam Declaration and surrendered unconditionally to the Allied Powers. Surprisingly, Japanese cultured pearls were something that the officers of the occupying forces in Japan looked forward to, and while the GHQ banned the sale of pearls in the country, they were ordered to deliver pearls held by designated companies to the GHQ for export in order to earn foreign currency, but they were also sold at military stores and sold rapidly.

 In 1948, domestic sales and exports of pearls were partially lifted and the country was one of the top commodities in terms of foreign currency earned. During the Second World War, pearls were regarded as an unnecessary and urgent luxury item, but after the war, while there were few precious export commodities, Japan's cultured pearls were regarded as the "flower of export" and became a savior of foreign currency earning. At the time, 95% of all production was exported, which contributed greatly to improving food shortages.

Overseas pearl popularity

 It was the Paris mode that drove the popularity of pearls overseas. Christian Dior's "New Look" ushered in an era in the fashion industry, coordinated with pearls. Loved by Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe, women from all over the world have bought pearls. Tiffany & Co. and Cartier also began to handle Japanese cultured pearls, and pearls became an indispensable part of black dresses.

Pearl Kingdom Japan

 Amidst the world's unprecedented pearl boom, pearls have become a special gem that can only be supplied by Japan. After the Anti-Monopoly Act of 1947 and the new Fisheries Act of 1949 liberated the fishing grounds of major pearl farming companies such as Mikimoto, people began to work in pearl farming as a family. At the time, the center of pearl farming was Mie Prefecture, which accounted for more than 90% of all pearl production in Japan. When Mie Prefecture began to regulate production in order to ease overproduction, pearl farmers, who did not like the regulations, expanded into Shikoku and Kyushu, and pearl farming quickly spread to western Japan. The number of cultivators continued to increase, and in the 1960s, 7mm pearls became the norm, and it took three years of cultivation with a 6mm core to produce 7mm pearls. In this way, pearl farming became a local industry, transforming a coastal area that had previously had no major industry into a highly profitable one. The Japanese government established the National Pearl Research Institute in 1955 and made pearl farming a national policy.

 In 1961, 98% of pearl production was exported to the United States, Switzerland, West Germany, Hong Kong, Italy and other countries. After the war, however, most of Japan's pearls were exported from Kobe after the establishment of a pearl inspection agency. At the time, the pearl industry was a growing industry without any recession, but its pearl exports suddenly came to a halt.

Unexpected "skirts" and pearls

 It was the mini-skirt craze that caused exports to stop. Originating from London street fashion, the miniskirt became a huge global craze in 1966-67. Pearls were left out of fashion on the grounds that mini skirts and pearls were incompatible, and the pearl depression began. Further overproduction continued and quality declined at the same time. Thus, foreign buyers suddenly stopped buying pearls, and the value of pearl exports was about half of its peak in 1971, and the price of pearls shored up dropped from half to a third. The Fisheries Agency and the pearl industry took measures to combat the recession, but the market did not turn around and pearl farmers began to shift their business one after another. In 1973, however, the tide began to turn due to production adjustments and the effects of the depression cartel. As the amount of pearls on the market declined, a sense of shortage spread among foreign buyers and demand for pearls began to revive. A further tailwind was Yves Saint Laurent's "maxi style", which replaced the miniskirt. Maxi style with pearl necklaces has become a cutting edge fashion, and foreign buyers are starting to buy more pearls.

Switch from overseas to domestic sales

 The trump card to overcome the pearl recession was to stimulate domestic demand. The export-oriented pearl industry has turned its attention to the domestic market. Major pearl companies promoted pearls in Japan and became the world's largest consumer of pearls during the bubble period. However, Ehime originally had a warm and high quality fishing ground called the Uwa Sea, where the Kuroshio Current flows in, and a large number of natural pearl oysters were found in the area.

 The authorities of Ehime Prefecture had been actively engaged in the cultured pearl business since the 1960s. It is also suitable for cultivating young shellfish, and Ehime Prefecture has become the largest mother shellfish cultivation prefecture in Japan. The pearl farming industry has also developed, and since 1974 it has often surpassed Mie and Nagasaki as the largest producer of pearls in Japan. In 1990, at the height of the bubble economy, Ehime Prefecture was producing 40% of the nation's pearls.

Fighting illness

 In the 1990s, the degradation of the marine environment led to a series of mass deaths of Akoya mussels across the country. In Ago Bay in Ise, the water quality deteriorated due to the construction of hotels during the bubble economy period and the increase in domestic wastewater caused by tourists. On the other hand, the fishing grounds in Ehime Prefecture are good, and in the Uwakai Sea, the Kuroshio tide, or "bottom-entering tide," circulates the seawater, and the deep water makes it difficult for the fishing grounds to age. In other prefectures, "Tonenmono" pearls that have been cultivated for less than a year have become the norm, but in Ehime, "Koshimono" pearls that have been cultivated for two years have been the mainstream. In 1994, an unprecedented disease occurred in the waters of the Bungo Channel between Ehime and Oita in which the scallops of young mother shells turned reddish-orange during high water temperatures in summer, weakened and killed the shells. Since Ehime Prefecture was a major supplier of mother shellfish, the disease quickly spread to other prefectures where it was shipped, killing more than half of the shellfish in Japan. The disease did not subside after that, and in 1998, the death rate of red clams nationwide was as high as 75%.

宇和島 アコヤ貝大量死

Akoya pearl oyster

A pile of dead pearl oyster

Symptomatic treatment for the mass death of an Akoya pearl oyster

 The cause of the mass death of the Akoya pearl oyster was a mysterious infection that went unexplained for more than a decade. The countermeasure to this unprecedented calamity was to create a disease-resistant pearl oysters. Around 1998, these hybrid pearl oyster began to be used and the mortality rate of the pearl oysters decreased. Thus, cultured pearl producers were able to turn their attention back to pearl production.


Atsumi Yamada "World History of Pearls" Chuko Shinsho 2013

Pearl Harbor Restoration Project

 Around 2000, Ago Bay in Ise-Shima began using dredged sludge to create an artificial tidal flat. It has been confirmed that the revival of tidal flats and seaweed beds will create a diverse ecosystem, increase the natural purification capacity of the sea, and reduce red tide and hypoxia. Furthermore, although Akoya pearl oyster have the ability to purify seawater, it was confirmed that the pearl cultivation industry has a high burden on the sea, and it was recommended that shellfish meat and cleaning scum not be dumped into the sea.

 In 2003, the pearl industry established a non-profit organization called "One Pearl" to create a forest that brings plankton to the sea to feed the Akoya pearl oyster. We are working to improve the marine environment by planting trees in Ago Bay, the Uwa Sea, Tsushima, and other areas. 

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