June birthstone: Pearls and my trip to Mikimoto, Toba, Japan
There are actually three birthstones for June! (Lucky June people.) Pearls, moonstone and alexandrite. I’ll probably get to all three minerals eventually, but today’s post is about the Mikimoto Pearl Company in Toba, Japan.
As an aside of geology: pearls are the only gemstones that are formed by a living creature. And pearls are made by irritating them! Mollusks such as oysters, clams and mussels are filter feeders. They suck water in one side of their shells, filtering out microscopic particles of food and spit the water back out. In the process, sometimes they will suck in a little piece of debris or a parasite that ends up stuck or damages the inside of the mollusk. This is irritating for the creature (think rock in shoe) so they form nacre (or shiny inside of a shell) around the irritation until it is smooth again. Natural pearls tend to be misshapen lumps that are glued to the side of the shell. Perfect pearls in the wild are very, very rare.
Toba is a small city facing Ise Bay on the Pacific side of Japan. A few years ago I was traveling far off the beaten path of regular American tourists. It was a lot of fun, there were historic shrines in Ise and pieces of culture and history scattered everywhere. On this particular day, my sister and I decided to visit the Toba Aquarium and got sidetracked into the Mikimoto Pearl Island.
Mikimoto Kokichi is the inventor of the cultivated pearl industry. Truly large, perfect pearls are somewhat rare and very expensive today. In the late 1800’s when Mikimoto started out in the pearl industry, perfect pearls were unheard of and priceless. Ise Bay, with its large Akoya oyster beds was one of the few places in the world that natural pearls were found regularly. (You can find them anywhere with bivalves, but they are even rarer elsewhere.) His company has a museum that describes how he experimented and eventually managed to cultivate pearls. We had never heard of Mikimoto before (and college students generally can’t afford salt water pearls) but decided to sign up for the tour. It started with a boat ride to their island! Who could resist?
According to the museum, Ise Bay is the perfect place to grow oysters commercially and Mikimoto figured out how to grow the oysters protected in big net baskets. We had a wonderful time admiring baskets, different types of pearls and a lot of history of the area. The lady running the booth explaining pearl quality wanted to adopt me on the behalf of the company, she said a geologist was too valuable to run around loose and I should come and sort pearls all day!
They even had a show explaining the work of Ama, or traditional women divers that hunted for seafood of all sorts in the bay before the advent of scuba gear and the cultivated oyster industry! Today, Ama are a beloved piece of regional history but an ever rarer sight as fewer and fewer women take up the dangerous occupation.
Today, Ise Bay is certainly not the only place where oysters are grown commercially (Hiroshima Bay is another very famous oyster farming area!) but it explained the vast amounts of seafood harvested in the area. During our stay at the Hoshidekan in Ise (I’ll tell that story another day) seafood was served in every meal: beautifully grilled fish and tiny clams in miso soup.
We never did get to the aquarium that day, but we did have a great time. My sister even purchased a canned oyster for her very own pearl!
Do you wish that my shop had pearls for sale? I occasionally make jewelry with pearls and would be happy to do a special order!