Made for Majesty: Mikimoto Pearls Buying Guide 

Cultured Pearl and Diamond Parure, Mikimoto

Captivating cultures for generations for their irresistible luminosity, pearls are a perennial favorite among jewelry lovers for their simple sophistication. Some of the most revered are Mikimoto pearls, renowned worldwide for their brilliant lustre. Added to this beauty is the innovation behind the Mikimoto brand, which is often credited as introducing the cultured pearl to the world, and elevating it to global acclaim.

Those with a panache for pearls will probably know that Mikimoto pearls often sell for high prices thanks to this history, but with a little knowledge, reasonable deals can still be found. This guide offers some history of Mikimoto pearls, some of the most coveted pieces made by the brand to prime you for your hunt for the next lustrous addition to your jewelry box, tips on what to look for when buying Mikimoto pearls, and how to care for them once you have them in your collection. 

The making of Mikimoto

The Mikimoto brand takes its name from Mikimoto Kokichi (1858-1954). Growing up along the southern coast of the main Japanese island of Honshu, young Mikimoto realized the demand for the elusive and elegant pearl, and he saw the havoc it was wreaking on the environment. Natural pearls, whose growth is spurred by introducing sand or another irritant inside an oyster, took significant time to grow as layers of nacre – the substance that gives pearls their creamy luminescence – envelop the irritating element that has been introduced. This extended time for production clashed, however, with the ever-increasing demand for pearls, which resulted in over-harvested oyster beds. 

A portrait of Mikimoto Kokichi

Portrait of Mikimoto Kokichi (御木本幸吉, 1858 – 1954) 

Seeing how challenging it was to harvest natural pearls, Mikimoto sought ways to grow his own. He established an oyster farm in 1888 and experimented with ways to “seed” oysters to grow pearls. It would not be until the following decade that Mikimoto would master his formula for kickstarting pearl production: his eventual secret to success was inserting a nib of mother of pearl into a piece of the oyster’s mantle tissue, which was in turn placed inside the oyster itself.

He opened his first pearl shop featuring these culture pearls, also known as “mabe pearls“, in Tokyo in 1899. Mikimoto, though, continued to experiment and adjust his practice until nearly 1910, when Mikimoto’s oyster beds would bring the world its first consistently spherical pearls.

By that point, Mikimoto had patented his process for creating what would become known as “cultured pearls”, and their popularity skyrocketed. Oyster farms spread around Japan to increase cultured pearl production. Meanwhile, Mikimoto was growing his business at an international scale. His first store in Europe opened in London in 1913, and he debuted a selection of his pearls at the Philadelphia World Exposition in 1926. By the midpoint of the twentieth century, Mikimoto had shops in major cities around the globe, from Los Angeles to Bombay.

Mikimoto building in Taisho and Pre-war Showa eras (early 20th century)

Mikimoto building in Taisho and Pre-war Showa eras (early 20th century)

By the time of Mikimoto’s death in 1954, Mikimoto pearl jewelry had earned an international reputation for its exquisite beauty and expert craftsmanship. The Mikimoto brand continues to uphold these high quality standards today, resulting in their contribution to notable jewelry commissions and continued celebration among fans of fine jewelry.

The most-coveted Mikimoto Pearls

While all Mikimoto pearl jewelry bears a unique beauty, there are particular categories that collectors seek out. Some of these include: 

Mikimoto Pearl Necklaces

There are arguably fewer jewelry pieces and timelessly classy as a Mikimoto pearl necklace. Featuring painstakingly paired pearls, often accented with gemstone additions, these striking necklaces make a statement. They also often achieve high price points, so be prepared to pay to possess such a strand. That being said, just as each pearl takes its own shape, each Mikimoto pearl necklace comes in a variety of styles. This means you can find some over-the-top opulence in strands that feature massive pearls or accompanying gems. A single strand of smaller Mikimoto pearls, however, can come at more modest prices but with the same magnificence as more elaborate pieces.  

Cultured Pearl and Diamond Necklace

Cultured Pearl and Diamond Necklace, Mikimoto. Sold for HKD125,000, via Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, China (November 2016).

Cultured Pearl and Diamond Necklace, Mikimoto

Cultured Pearl and Diamond Necklace, Mikimoto. Sold for HKD125,000, via Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, China (November 2016).

 

Mikimoto Pearl Rings

For those who want some pearlescent perfection to adorn their fingers, a Mikimoto pearl ring makes a fantastic addition to a jewelry collection. Again there is a wide range of styles and price points within this category. One facet that can influence price is the pearl’s color, which varies naturally during formation and is usually tied to the hue of the outer lip of the oyster’s shell. Different colors are more coveted than others. Some argue that the most celebrated are black pearls, like those featured in Mikimoto black pearl rings, where the pearl’s deep gray tones convey a stormy sophistication.

Black Cultured Pearl and Diamond Ring

Black Cultured Pearl and Diamond Ring, Mikimoto. Sold for ¥240,000, via Est-Ouest Auctions Co., Ltd., Tokyo, Japan (September 2008).

Mikimoto Pearl Parures and Sets

Full sets of matching jewelry, or parures, are a tradition that can be traced back to eighteenth-century Imperial France and are still commissioned today among aristocratic circles. Mikimoto, for instance, crafted a one-of-a-kind parure consisting of a Mikimoto pearl bracelet brooch, necklace, tiara, and pair of earrings for Japanese princess Kako of Akishino in commemoration of her twentieth birthday in 2013. You can join in on this regal tradition by seeking out similar sets including Mikimoto pearls.

Cultured Pearl and Diamond Parure

Cultured Pearl and Diamond Parure, Mikimoto. Sold for £10,000, via Sotheby’s, London (September 2017).

 

Identifying Mikimoto Pearls 

Once you’ve found that perfect Mikimoto pearl bracelet or earring pair, you’ll want to ensure that you are acquiring a genuine Mikimoto piece. There are several ways to confirm the authenticity of your Mikimoto pearl jewelry. Some aspects to consider include:

Overall Pearl Quality

Mikimoto cultured pearls are renowned for their exceptional quality, so any signs of thin or inconsistent nacre should be cause for concern. The same can be said for imperfections or irregularities on the surface or between pearls in a strand: though all made from nature, the pearls are painstakingly paired by Mikimoto artisans to ensure their uniform size and unblemished spherical surface.

Silk Strand

If purchasing a necklace or bracelet, examine the strand: what is the quality of the threading? Original Mikimoto pearls are typically threaded with a silk strand. It is important to note, however, that vintage Mikimoto pearl necklace strands have potentially been restrung.

Clasp Characteristics

Clasps on any authentic Mikimoto pearl pieces will bear the name or the iconic “M” imposed with the profile of an oyster shell. In addition to the brand name, make sure to also confirm the metal mark (typically gold or silver).  

Post Purchase: Preserving Mikimoto Pearls

Once you’ve found that perfect Mikimoto pearl piece to add to your collection, you can rest assured that the natural beauty of Mikimoto cultured pearls can stand the test of time. That is,  only if you care for your pearls appropriately. Pearls are vulnerable to the conditions of their surroundings: everything from high acidity to humidity can impact the lustre of your Mikimoto pearl jewelry. To ensure their longevity, there are several simple habits to practice:

  • Always wipe down your pearls with a soft dry cloth after wearing them.
  • Keep your Mikimoto pearls in their own compartment in your jewelry box to avoid scratches or dings from contact with harder gemstones.
  • Understand that, as an organic creation, pearls can easily become worn over time with excessive exposure, so wear them with care.
  • At the same time: enjoy them! There is evidence to suggest pearls benefit from wear because it exposes them to air. This contact can prevent dehydration that can turn pearls brittle and make them prone to cracking.

Take good care of your Mikimoto pearls and they can add both lustre and a legacy of expert craftsmanship to your jewelry collection for many years to come.