In Japan, pearls have denoted wealth and class for thousands of years, prized for their rarity and beguiling lustre.
As far back as the first century, the famous ama free divers have held their breath for minutes at a time to search the waters of southern Japan for naturally occurring pearls. In 1893, Japan became the birthplace of pearl cultivation when Kokichi Mikimoto, founder of the famous jewellery company, successfully managed to coax a semi-spherical gem from an oyster for the first time.
Since then, the Mikimoto family has improved on the technique and Japanese cultivation now yields high-quality pearls in a variety of sizes, colours and shapes for elegant pearl jewellery that would have once been beyond the reach of all but the imperial family.
Kokichi Mikimoto, photo courtesy of MIKIMOTO
When people talk about Japanese pearls, what they usually mean is pearls from Akoya oysters, which are found in the waters around Japan. Akoya pearls are characterised by their delicate hue and refined lustre. They come in pink, silver and cream and tend to be slightly smaller than other saltwater pearls, with diametres of 5-7mm being most common.
We consulted Mr Mamoru Nakagawa, Senior Marketing Manager at MIKIMOTO, to get some tips to keep in mind when shopping for Japanese pearls.
"Generally, the quality of a pearl is determined by a combination of several elements," says Nakagawa, listing the lustre, nacre thickness, shape and the presence of flaws.
Photo courtesy of MIKIMOTO
Lustre: A rich lustre is a key element in evaluating the quality of a pearl. The shine is determined by the smoothness of the surface, the thickness of the nacre layer and what kind of impurities the pearl may contain.
Nacre thickness: The nacre is also known as mother of pearl. It's the strong, iridescent outer coating on the pearl. The thicker the nacre, the higher the quality of the pearl.
Shape: Generally, the closer to a true sphere, the higher the quality of the pearl. However, non-spherical pearls have an inherent appeal that many people prize in a piece of jewellery, so there is some subjectivity to this criterion.
Flaws: Flaws naturally arise in the course of a pearl's formation, but the fewer the flaws, the better the quality. These flaws may include spotting or variation in colour, pits or bumps.
"The easiest way to distinguish real pearls and fake pearls is by their temperature," Nakagawa adds. "Real pearls are cold to touch before warming up against your skin while fake plastic pearls have the same temperature as the room. Though fake pearls made of glass beads can be cool to touch, it tends to take longer time to warm up against your skin than real pearls."
"Another method is lightly rub two pearls against the other. Real pearls offer you a gritty or sandy feeling while fake pearls offer you a smooth feeling. Yet, this is a desperate way as this may scratch or damage the surface of pearls," he says.
Of course, choosing a reputable shop means not having to worry about getting a good pearl. Instead, you can focus on getting the right pearl.
MIKIMOTO's Ginza store, phptp courtesy of MIKIMOTO
At MIKIMOTO's flagship store in Ginza, the sophisticated shopping experience starts even before you go through the door with the whimsical architecture of Toyo Ito. The faintly pink facade and irregularly shaped windows are said to call to mind the bubbles in mother of pearl, falling flower petals and the temptation and excitement of peeking into a jewellery box.
88 Collection, photo courtesy of MIKIMOTO
Inside, you can find pieces from all of MIKIMOTO's lines displayed across several floors. Elegant designs incorporating beautiful Akoya pearls are naturally a major draw, as are those featuring the exquisite flame-like natural conch pearls and South Sea pearls in silver, gold and black. All the pearls used in MIKIMOTO jewellery have to conform to the company's strict standards of quality and the staff are committed to providing each customer with service tailored to their needs, so you are guarantied to find your perfect Japanese pearl.
2-4-12 Ginza, Chuo-ku, +81 (0)3 3535 4711, www.mikimoto.com