We are lucky to live in the 21st century – for this is the age when the largest and most beautiful pearls in human history are cultivated.
The history of cultured pearls in fairly young, slightly more than 100 years old.But it is fascinating history shaped by three generations devoting to and working towards an ideal of the perfect pearl, working in humility and harmony with the unpredictable forces of nature.
It all started in the 19th century, when the greedy fishing of pearl oysters for natural pearls led to the near depletion and scarcity of natural pearls. To meet the insatiable quest for more, ever bigger and ever rounder pearls, ingenious people observed the formation of natural pearls and attempted to copy the process of nature. A series of experiments were conducted in various parts of the world, but the consensus is that the first round pearls were successfully harvested in 1898 in Japan.
Three Japanese were cited to have initiated the art of pearl cultivation: KoKichi Mikimoto, Tassuhei Mise and Tokichi Nishikawa, Historical records show that the three discovered the techniques to grow round pearls at more or less the same time. The first cultured pearls were between 3mm and 5mm ,mostly button and rarely round, and only the upper part was lustrous.
When these cultured pearls appeared at fairs and auctions in Europe and the United States, pearl merchants in Paris, London and New York were perplexed by these genuine pearls from a new source. Many traditionalists vehemently branded cultured pearls as fakes.
The Japanese akoya industry grew and prospered until before the outbreak of word war II,In those days,the industry grouped 289 farms with a record annual production of 11 million pearls . The typical strands in the pre-war years were called 3.5 momme graduation, because the graduated akoya necklace had a centre pearl of 7mm and end pearls of 3mm, weighing 3.5 momme (about 13g). Nowadays, akoya necklaces are nearly always in uniform sizes.
Attempts to grow south Sea pearls started as early as 1915. Japanese pioneers, motivated by their initial success in culturing akoya pearls, saw the potential of growing larger pearls using a larger oyster sps found in the Pacific Ocean.
Trial farming was carried out in the Philippines and Indonesia. The first harvest of round South Sea pearls took place in 1928 in Celebes, A Dutch colony until Indonesia declared independence. South Sea pearls harvested in those days were mainly between 8mm and 10mm, much larger than the 3mm to 4mm akoya pearls.
Interrupted during world war II, south sea pearls development resumed intermittently in Myanmar, Indonesia, Australia and the Philippines after the war, mostly with Japanese investment and know how. But it was no until the ’70s that the cultivation of South Sea pearls began to experience stable and significant growth. Australia and Indonesia are today the two largest producing countries of South Sea Pearls.
The history of black pearls is relatively recent.Tahiti came on stage in the early ’60s , when Jean-Marie Domard of the Fisheries Service commissioned research on the potential of pearl cultivation in French Polynesia. The first 1,000 Tahitian pearls were harvested in 1965.The first registered official export of 1,563g was in 1972.Nearly 40 years later, the Tahyitian pearl industry has matured , with an annual production of between 8 and 10 tonnes, generating an income of USD100 million to the black pearl paradise.
Encouraged by their success in growing marine pearls at the turn of the 20th century, some Japanese started experimenting with the culture of pearls in ponds and lakes. In the ’20s, the first batch of freshwater pearls were harvested in Lake Biwa. Until the ’70s, Japan dominated the freshwater pearl industry, and Biwa Pearls became the synonym of freshwater cultured pearls.
Records showed that the first successful harvest of Chinese freshwater pearls took place in 1968. The first pearls were small, rice-shaped and wrinkled. But China was a fast learner and by the 80s, it surprised the world with smooth-bodied , bigger and rounder pearls . Improvements and cultivation breakthroughs continue, and the size of freshwater pearls has increased from 5mm on average in the early ’90s to 8mm today.
Behind the 100 years of pearl culturing were many colorful individuals — adventurous and curious, daring in their dreams but industrious in turning their dreams into reality. Most of all , they have managed to join forces with nature to bring out cultured pearls that are larger and grander than natural pearls.