Once an exceedingly rare gem, pearls today can be cultivated by man and become more popular and accessible.
Rarity is no longer the main value driver and one may learn to appreciate each pearl based on its virtues.
Whilst it is relatively easy to produce pearls, the challenges are many and the quest for the perfect pearl remains elusive.
Carl Linnaeus was the first European to attempt to grow cultured pearls as early as 1761 by inserting limestone beads into freshwater mussel shells. The resulting pearls were small and of poor quality. Whilst in Australia, British biologist William Saville-Kent experimented with techniques similar to those used in thirteen-century China using freshwater mussels. He successfully produced half pearls (mabe pearls) by inserting hemispherical beads into Pinctada maxima oyster shells.
Dr. Tokichi Nishikawa a government biologist, and Tatsuhei Mise a carpenter by trade patented a technique to cultivate round pearls using primarily Pinctada fucata oysters, which produce Akoya pearls. Both had connections to Australia and may have benefited from Saville’s work who reported discovering the technique but died before he could publish it. Mise-Nishikawa method was granted a patent in 1907. The technique consists in inserting a piece of epithelial membrane (mantle or saibo in Japanese) with a nucleus into the oyster’s body of mantle to form a pearl sack. The sack produces nacre, which coats the nucleus, thus creating a pearl.
Kokichi Mikimoto (whose daughter married Nishikawa) introduced cultured round pearls to the global commercial market. This technology enabled Japan’s Akoya cultured pearl industry to quickly expand after 1916; by 1935 there were 350 pearl farms in Japan producing 10 million cultured pearls annually.
Mitsubishi’s Baron Iwasaki applied the technology to the South Sea pearl oyster in 1917 in Indonesia as well as in the Philippines and Palau. He was the first one to produce a cultured South Sea Pearl but it was not until 1928 that the first small commercial crop of pearls was successfully harvested.
Australian pearler Ancell Gregory, working together with Japanese entrepreneur Yasukichi Murakami, attempted to establish a cultured pearl farm in the Montebello Islands. However, the farm was prohibited after other pearlers lobbied against its potential threats to the pearl shell market. The following year, the Western Australian government passed legislation banning the manufacture or trade of cultured pearls
Pearl culture in Myanmar commenced in 1954 after the establishment of a private Japanese-Myanmar joint-venture farm, who started pearl cultivation at Domel Island. Divers equipped with the most modern diving gear of that time collected pearl oysters, and the joint-venture was able to successfully cultivate Myanmar pearls.
Australia’s first cultured pearl farm opened at Kuri Bay in 1956.Trading under the name Pearls Proprietary Limited (PPL), American and Australian pearlers teamed up with Japanese counterparts, who provided technical know-how.
The Philippines archipelago, is composed of over 7000 Islands. Located on the Pacific Ring of Fire and close to the Equator makes the Philippines prone to earthquakes and typhoons. However this also endows it with abundant natural resources and some of the world’s greatest biodiversity. As a pearl producing country, the Philippines are known for their rare golden South Sea pearls.
French Polynesia is composed of 118 geographically dispersed Islands and atolls stretching over more than 2.500.000 km2 of ocean but only 4.000 km2 of land. Pearling is the second largest industry accounting for half of its exports. Tahitian black pearls are born of a cousin specie of Pinctada Maxima called Pinctada Margaritifera and come in a very wide variety of colours and overtones.
In 1988 Australia sets up the first fishing quotas for wild Pinctada maxima shells to preserve and protecting this natural resource. A fishing license system is implemented to limit the number of operators. Indonesia follows in Australia’s footsteps banning the fishing of wild Pinctada maxima shells, as the “pearl rush” threatens natural resources. Unlike Pinctada margaritifera, which can be collected from an early age whilst they are still swimming using floating substrate, Pinctada maxima are extremely rare in the wild and require deep diving in often adverse oceans filled with potentially lethal marine wildlife.
It is still not clear to date which country or company can claim theset-up of the first commercially viable hatchery. Whilst triggering spawning through temperature shock was proven easy, which plankton cocktail to provide baby oysters with at any given time of their growth remains a well-guarded secret to date.