All About Pearls; History:
Who really discovered the secret of cultured pearls?
It turns out, it is very likely that everything you think you know about the birth of cultured pearls isn't true...or at least, like a cultured pearl, has a grain of truth in the center, surrounded by layers of misconception.
Cultured pearls Photo by GIA
Most of the general public believe that a Japanese man named Mikimoto Kokichi came up with the commercially viable method for nucleating cultured pearls that most pearl farms use. Nucleation refers to the insertion of an object, generally a shell bead and/or a bit of mantle, into the oyster to cause a pearl to form. The grain of truth is that Mikimoto and his wife Ume did experiment tirelessly on their pearl farm to try to create a round pearl through human interference. And they had much difficulty and nearly went broke; and they did succeed. But what they succeeded at was making a half-round pearl, the type we now refer to as a mabe cultured pearl, not the beautifully, perfectly round pearls we think of when we hear the term "cultured".
Cultured Pearl, Spessartite and Diamond Ring, Orb Pearl Collection
The rest of the truth is much more convoluted.
The man evidence points to as having actually discovered the method of nucleating cultured pearls was an English marine biologist by the name of William Saville-Kent, living in Australia. By the time of his discovery, he was a very stable and respected individual; but his youth was filled with misadventure. His mother passed away when he was young, and his father wooed the nanny while the mother was deathly ill, to then marry the nanny after his mother had passed. The eldest and favored of his half-siblings (a boy) from this second marriage was murdered when not even four years old, a murder his favorite sister Constance confessed to nearly five years later. There is some thought that Constance confessed to cover for William himself. There is also belief that the crime was complex enough that it would have required two, and that William and his sister both murdered the small child. Whatever the truth, Saville-Kent grew up to be a well respected marine biologist working with several museums and aquariums throughout Britain. He then became inspector of Fisheries in Tasmania, Commisioner of Fisheries in Queensland and then for Western Australia. He was well known for his studies on coral, exhibiting his coral photos and illustrations in 1892, and more interestingly to us, William also showed a large, fine pearl that he had caused an oyster to produce. This was the first cultured pearl that he had displayed so publicly, and presumably the best one he had produced so far.
Coral Illustration by Saville-Kent
The study of the cultivation of pearls took more and more of Saville-Kent's time after 1892, and he would discuss the process with anyone who asked. In fact, during his lifetime, British researchers were eschewing patents, viewing them as an obstruction to research, benefiting the few at the expense of public good; so he would have done what he could to spread knowledge so that additional gains could be made through group research. When Saville-Kent died in 1908, he would have never heard about his method being patented in 1907, in a small country that at the time the world considered to be a backwater, known as Japan.
Our following blog post will go into the patent wars that followed Saville-Kent's discovery, which are rife with half-truths, deceptions, family drama, bribery and corruption. Which is why it's been so hard to piece the true story together.
Cultured pearl, Rubellite and Diamond Earrings, Orb Pearl Collection