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Culture : The Princess and the Pearl : * Suddenly, it's fashionable to wear the 'world's oldest gem' in Japan. The long-dormant domestic market is booming, thanks in large part to a woman nicknamed Kiko-san.

July 02, 1991|JENNIFER TOTH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOBA, Japan — For centuries, the iridescent pearl has been a subject of legend and mystery. Greeks thought they were the teardrops of mermaids. Byzantium's rulers believed they were drops of the moon. Medieval Europeans used pearls to reflect the glare of evil spirits, while in the Far East, the gems were crushed into medicines to cure diseases.

Pearls are even said to have altered the course of history. Legend has it that Julius Caesar undertook the conquest of the British Isles because fine pearls were rumored to be found there. And pearls were the first Japanese product "traded" with the United States--though the gems were turned over under the guns of Commodore Matthew C. Perry's black ships in 1853.

"As sure as prostitution is the oldest profession, pearls are the oldest (valued) gem," says Ryo Yamaguchi, managing director of Mikimoto Co., Japan's largest and most influential pearl company. And today, thanks to Mikimoto cultivation techniques, pearls are also the most plentiful gem in the world.

This wasn't always the case. Pearls were in short supply before Kokichi Mikimoto's patented technique--essentially producing natural pearls from oysters seeded with an artificial irritant--ran out after World War II. But then, other Japanese firms jumped into the market, and both production and demand have soared.

Now, Japan alone produces over 77 tons of pearls a year--70%-80% of the world's total--making it the pearl capital of the world. (Other principal producing countries include Australia, Myanmar, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Tahiti.) Tokyo-based Mikimoto reports that its sales for the past two years have been growing at a double-digit rate.

Yamaguchi expects the Japanese share of the pearl market to rise even further because the largest natural pearl production region--in the Persian Gulf--was spoiled by oil spills during the recent war. (Natural pearls only account for about 1% of all pearl production, however.)

Contributing further to the new demand has been the renewed popularity of pearls among some of the world's wealthiest and most photographed women, who traditionally set trends. Diana, the Princess of Wales, for example, has her simple strings, and Barbara Bush her three-strand choker. But none has popularized pearls as much as Princess Kiko--the pearl-loving Japanese commoner who charmed her nation last June with a storybook wedding to the emperor's second son.

Kiko-san, as she is called, spurred a pearl boom so large among 18- to 24-year-old women in Japan that companies such as Mikimoto are finding that for the first time in the country's history, it is more profitable to keep pearls at home than to ship them abroad.

Japanese companies are now exporting only 12% of their pearls abroad. The rest of the pearls are kept for sale in the domestic jewelry market, which is second only to that of the United States.

Although the coves of Japan have always been one of the world's greatest sources of pearls, jewelry has never before played much of a role in Japanese culture. In fact, pearls were valued only in foreign trade until the 20th Century, when Japanese women began to copy Western style and adorned themselves with these and other gems.

In fact, about the only threat to Japan's cultured pearl market now comes from half the world away, in America's Tennessee and Mississippi rivers. Those waterways are the source of the favorite irritant inserted into an oyster to form the core of a cultured pearl--a tiny fragment of a pig-toe mussel shell.

The pig-toe is particularly valuable because its shell provides a rich source of calcium for the pearl oysters, which digest small parts of the irritant as they make the gems. Japanese companies pay $2.50 to $3 a pound for the shells, netting Tennessee divers alone an estimated $44 million last year. But the pig-toe shells are getting scarce.

There are basically three types of pearls: natural, cultured and fake.

-- Natural, also called "real" and "Oriental" pearls, are formed randomly by free oysters. A natural irritant such as sand or seaweed forms the heart of the pearl.

Japanese pearl fisheries existed more than 2,000 years ago, according to folk tales that usually tell of beautiful and seductive young women divers, who are often pictured draped in traditional white cotton gowns. The women used to dive for pearls found on coral reefs at depths of up to 70 feet.

Usually working out of small boats, they collected the oysters in bags which were opened with great anticipation at the end of the day. The divers, considered by some to be as bewitching as mermaids, also brought to the surface stories about monsters of the deep, which undoubtedly contributed to the value and the legend of pearls.

The young women divers have now largely been put out of work by cultured pearls. Mostly they harvest seaweed or may be called upon to rescue pearl oyster rafts after a storm has blown them off their anchors.

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