By Ashley Bailey
, Monday, August 07, 2006
No doubt you’ve heard of Mikimoto pearls, one of the world’s leading brands. They’re named after Kokichi Mikimoto (1857-1954) who is arguably the Henry Ford of pearls. It was he who in 1908 perfected (he is mistakenly credited with inventing) what is now known as pearl culturing.
This method involves inserting a clamshell bead nucleus wrapped in mantle tissue from a donor oyster into the gonads of a host oyster. Next, the nucleated oyster is put in a basket or cage in a bay or lagoon where it will hopefully secrete layers of nacre around this center. When the nacre accumulates into a sufficiently thick wall, it is removed and sold as a cultured pearl. When introduced into the world market in large quantities during the 1920s, they were indistinguishable from natural pearls and the market crashed. Not until an easy detection method was found involving x-rays did the market normalize.
In Mikimoto’s day, pearls were allowed to grow for three to four years and had substantial nacre buildups. But starting in the 1960s, Japanese pearl farmers began to shorten growing times. As bad, they put more nucleated oyster in the water, forcing them to compete harder for nutrients and further inhibiting nacre secretion. Oyster mortality rates climbed. AS they did, farmers compensated by putting more nucleated oysters in the water. It was a vicious circle.
At the same time, fisheries started putting chemicals into their waters to protect popular species from predators. And run-off of chemical fertilizers and pesticides used for land farming began to pollute Japan’s once-pristine waters.
The stage was set for eco-calamity.
Around 1997, a mysterious virus killed off more than half (some say 80%) of Japan’s pearl oysters. Today, Japan is producing at most 20% of what she did in her peak years during the mid-1960s. Worse, most pearls are grown in tank-bred oysters that do not have the health and hardiness of their grown-in-the-wilds counterparts. As a result, nacre thickness is usually very thin and the pearl world has had to turn elsewhere for thick-nacre pearls.
The tragedy of all this is that Japanese Akoya pearls have a distinctive rosy tint and high-gloss luster. So if you want a strand of 7mm or larger Japanese Akoya pearls with decent nacre thickness, you will have to pay a very high price. We think it’s worth it, but there are affordable alternatives for this June birthstone.