Tokichi Nishikawa

  • 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



  • 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 pearlsCultured 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".


    Orb Pearl Collection RingCultured 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.


    Saville-Kent CoralCoral 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.

    Orb Pearl Collection EarringsCultured pearl, Rubellite and Diamond Earrings, Orb Pearl Collection


    Click here to for part 2



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