All About Pearls; History: Who really discovered the secret of cultured pearls?

Read part 1 here


Part two has a larger cast of characters than part one. Below are listed our main players:

Mikimoto Kokichi – the father of cultured pearls.

William Saville-Kent – English Marine Biologist, best known for his work with coral.

Tokichi Nishikawa – A technician for fisheries investigations

Tatsuhei Mise – A carpenter

orb pearl collection ringCultured pearl, diamond and 18k white gold ring, Orb Pearl Collection, Yael Designs

The two people who history credits with discovering the method to nucleate cultured pearls were two young Japanese men, Tokichi Nishikawa and Tatsuhei Mise. Nishikawa was a relatively recent graduate from Tokyo University (1897) who was appointed as technician for fisheries investigations and Mise was a carpenter by trade. Neither had previously been involved with extensive research of any type. Though seeming to not know each other, they both came up with the same scientific principles and both announced their success at the same time. So how did this happen?

There is some belief that there was some collusion on the part of the Japanese government. The technological level of the country was low at the time, so it is believed that the Japanese government was sending people out to gather technology and information to return with to Japan. Supporting this line of reasoning: the Japanese Bureau of Fisheries sent the stepfather of Mise, senior inspector of Japanese pearling boats, and Nishikawa to the area of William Saville-Kent's pearl farm in late 1901 for about half a year. Together, these two gentlemen had the background to assimilate Saville-Kent's research. Once they were retired from their appointments, (for Nishikawa that was in 1905 when he was appointed to a university to undertake pearl research,) they began experimenting with Saville-Kent's methods, Mise's stepfather working with Mise.


orb pearl collection earringsCultured pearl, rubellite, diamond and 18k rose gold earrings, Orb Pearl Collection, Yael Designs

Mise entered his patent on May 13, 1907, claiming to have made his initial discovery in 1904. Nishikawa entered his patent on October 23, 1907 saying he'd just made his discovery. Finding that Mise had beaten him to the punch, Nishikawa backdated his date of discovery to February 20, 1899, making sure to choose a date previous to his trip to Australia so that he could claim original inventor status, even from a front that no-one in Japan had yet mentioned. Mise and Nishikawa would continue their argument past Nishikawa's death in 1909, both sides coming to an agreement to combine their patents in 1916, and rename their method the Mise-Nishikawa method.


Cherry Blossom Festival Crown, 1957

Cherry Blossom Festival Crown, 1957, Mikimoto

Now how was Mikimoto involved in all of this? Around the time Nishikawa entered his patent, he married Mikimoto's daughter. (Nishikawa went to and later worked at the University that the professor Mikimoto occasionally consulted with also worked.) Mikimoto, at this time, owned a very successful pearl shop in the fashionable Ginza district of Tokyo selling natural seed pearls and half round cultured pearls. (This shop went international in 1913.) Mikimoto, seeing these patents going up around him in 1907, entered his own patent for growing round pearls in 1908 which shrunk how much the Mise-Nishikawa method could cover. However, Mikimoto's method was unreliable, time intensive and required a lot of management. But this did allow him to start modifying his methods and those listed on his patent to continue to put pressure on the Mise-Nishikawa patent, until he could finally buy into it. 


Miss USA crown, 2002

Miss USA Crown, 2002, Mikimoto

Once everything was legally on the up-and-up, in 1916, Mikimoto began working with Akoya oysters to produce cultured pearls which quickly expanded his business. He was an amazing promoter and staunch defender of cultured pearls. He traveled the world in a time when travel was still laborious to show his pearls and to learn what styles were most popular in major city centers. He pulled off exceptionally successful publicity stunts such as burning shovelfuls of low quality cultured pearls in 1935, to drive home that he would never sell such quality pearls. And he successfully defended his cultured pearls against claims put forth that his pearls were not "real". The entire pearl industry, as well as everyone who owns or wears any cultured pearl jewelry, owes a debt to Mikimoto. Without his tireless work and promotion, these perfect round globes of softly gleaming light would not be available to all of us.


orb pearl collection ring

Cultured pearl, diamond and 18k white gold ring, Orb Pearl Collection, Yael Designs

There is less recorded about Mise than Mikimoto. Mise and his brother joined forces with Mitsubishi and began commercializing South Sea pearling. They produced their first viable commercial crop of cultured pearls in 1928, four years after Mise's death.

 And one last chapter on the history of the discovery of nucleating and culturing pearls: After WWII, in 1949, an official of the US Government explored the question of who the true holder of the patent should be, Mise or Nishikawa. Looking at just the evidence presented, this official deemed Mise the originator and Nishikawa the usurper. Rumor has it that Mikimoto, who lived till 1954, was involved in pressuring the official to name Mise, as opposed to his son-in-law, the true patent holder. A believable rumor, as the official was learning about cultured pearls and cultured pearl production at Mikimoto's pearl farm.

 History does not state why Mikimoto would have favored Mise's claim over his own son-in-law's. Both men had passed away long previously. Mikimoto was always fiercely protective of the cultured pearl invention: perhaps he chose Mise because Mise had never been to Australia, and it would be harder to trace the true origins of the nucleation method. It is also possible that Mikimoto was honoring a deal he might have made with Mise when Mise chose to use his patent for South Sea pearls and left Akoya pearls in Mikimoto's very capable hands.

Hello Kitty Tiara

Hello Kitty Tiara, Mikimoto



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