For centuries the magical luster of pearls has been a source of mystery and the subject of legend. The ancients believed they were teardrops of mermaids, or dew drops swallowed by oysters that swam to the surface of the sea.
At the turn of the century, Koichi Mikimoto, a Japanese entrepreneur, discovered how to cultivate beautifully shaped pearls. Today pearl cultivation is a major industry in Japan.
But even if modern technological know-how has removed some of the mystery from the making of pearls, the luster and beauty of these gems fascinate shoppers.
Thanks to Mikimoto, beautiful teardrops of mermaids are commonly available to the pearl-loving public. Strings of pearls, delicate brooches or elegant earrings are favorite souvenirs from Japan.
Mikimoto's company is still Japan's largest and most influential pearl producer. But Tasaki Pearl and other highly respected pearl cultivators have challenged Mikimoto's dominance, increasing the competition in pearl production, marketing and jewelry design.
Unfortunately, the yen's high value means higher prices on Japanese pearls worldwide. But if you buy these treasures at their source, you'll pay less.
Even with the soaring yen, prices for high-quality pearls are somewhat lower in Japan than in the United States. Japanese governmental supervision of pearl sales is very strict. Even naive shoppers are safe purchasing pearls in Japan, especially if they buy from a reputable shop.
Both Mikimoto and Tasaki staff their lavishly stocked and conveniently located branch shops in Tokyo with English-speaking salespeople. Both companies offer substantial tax rebates (about 13%) on purchases for export, if they amount to more than $360 U.S. There is no tax rebate, however, on loose pearls.
Mikimoto (4-chome, Chuo-ku, with branches at the Imperial and Okura hotels and boutiques in leading department stores) has the higher prices. A single six-millimeter pearl, well rounded and of good quality, sells for about $45. A 16-inch string of four-millimeter pearls, well matched and well rounded, costs about $400 and up; a 16-inch string of six-millimeter pearls of equal quality costs about $900 and up.
In addition, Mikimoto has traditionally styled brooches and pendants with pearls set in silver or gold: pearl circle pins cost about $80 and up; hearts with pearls dangling in their centers are about $50 in silver or $100 in gold; delicate floral settings cost about $120 and up. Earrings range from simple pearl dots ($40 and up, depending on size) to extravagant and expensive pearl and diamond clusters.
Tasaki Pearl (Pearl Building, 7-9-18 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 1-3-3 Akasaka, Minato-ku, and branch shops in the New Otani, Imperial and Keio Plaza hotels) doesn't have as big a name, but pearl quality is excellent and prices are very competitive.
Compare: a single six-millimeter pearl, of good quality and well rounded, sells for about $40. A 16-inch string of seven-millimeter pearls, well matched and well rounded, costs from about $600 and up. You can pick an 18-karat gold clasp from a tray full of samples and have it attached to your pearls for an $80 service fee.
More elaborate clasps are sold for $250 to $2,500. There also are large heart-shaped mabe pearls for $300 and up, and 18-karat gold umbrella pins with pearl raindrops for about $250.
Mitsukoshi and other fine department stores carry Mikimoto and Tasaki jewelry as well as their own designs in sizable pearl departments. They often offer sale items, including 16-inch strings of medium-quality pearls for about $275 and up. But top-quality items are as costly as they are at Mikimoto and Tasaki, and there is likely to be less variety.
The dealers at the Oriental Bazaar (5-9-13 Jingumae, Shibuya- ku) are also good sources of attractive, reasonably priced baubles.
Mori Silver (second floor), one of the better shops, has innovative designs. But these middle-price shops don't have the finer quality pearls that are found at Mikimoto and Tasaki.
You should actually begin your pearl treasure hunt before you land in Tokyo. Check Japan Air Lines' in-flight shop for exquisite Mikimoto pieces at exceptional prices.
The 18-karat gold pearl and diamond pendants and earrings of pearls set into 18-karat gold boomerangs sell for about $240 each.
Other pearl jewelry, exclusively designed for JAL by Maruwa, includes an 18-karat gold bracelet with eight pearls for about $120, as well as a selection of earrings. Pearls are sold only on transpacific flights.
Guidelines to Quality
Of course, quality of pearls varies greatly. As with other big-ticket items, it's your responsibility to know about the product before you buy.
Here are some basic guidelines: First, make sure pearls are genuine by inspecting the surface around holes drilled for stringing or setting. On genuine pearls the surface around the hole is smooth and you can see layers of nacre.