Pearls were largely an accident of nature until the late 19th century, when entrepreneur Kokichi Mikimoto invented a method of cultivating them by introducing a foreign body into the shells of oysters.
A shell protects a mollusk’s organs from predators. The first of three separate components of a mollusk’s shell is an inner layer of nacre (mother-of-pearl), which is composed of a continuously secreting calcium carbonate that is used to smother foreign objects. This sustained reaction ultimately produces pearls.
After receiving a patent for “nucleated” pearl production in 1916, Mikimoto eventually produced a saltwater pearl from the diminutive Akoya oyster that is native to Japan. Akoya pearls are still highly valued today.
Mikimoto, whose dream was to “adorn the necks of all women around the world with pearls,” successfully applied his process to larger South Sea oysters to produce distinctive black and white pearls.
Lake Biwa is the largest lake in the country, producing mollusk species such as mussels for at least 2 million years, many of which were known to produce pearls naturally.
Read more about the battle to save Japan’s ailing freshwater pearl industry on the Japan Times website HERE