Visit to Japan’s pearl farms

By Dr. L.E. Cartier & Dr. M.S. Krzemnicki, first published in Facette 29 (May 2024)

Pearl farming activities in the Ago Bay of Mie Preferecture (Japan). Photo: L.E. Cartier, SSEF.

Having attended the IGC conference in Tokyo in October 2023, Dr. Michael S. Krzemnicki and Dr. Laurent E. Cartier took some time to travel south to visit the cultured pearl trading hub of Kobe and pearl farmers in Mie prefecture. This region is the birthplace of Akoya pearl cultivation and where one can still visit the Mikimoto pearl island today.

Our visit was aimed at understanding current pearl cultivation practices in Japanese Akoya production. The farms in this area are still renowned for producing high-quality Akoya cultured pearls today.

During our visit, we closely observed farming techniques for pearl oyster growth and operation procedures for oysters. We examined each stage of pearl development, from oyster selection to pearl harvesting. Engaging with experts, we learned about selective breeding and environmental optimization techniques to enhance Akoya cultured pearl quality and yield.

Our findings and samples collected will contribute to the scientific understanding of Akoya pearl cultivation, and ongoing research projects on pearl formation and DNA fingerprinting. We greatly appreciate the hospitality of Andy Müller and Akira Horiguchi in Kyoto, George Kakuda (Kakuda Pearl Co. Ltd.) and the local pearl farming families that generously shared their time and expertise.

The Akoya pearl oyster has been producing beautiful, cultured pearls for over a century, thanks to the beautiful iridescence effect it can produce (see the colours on the shell). Photo: L.E. Cartier, SSEF.
Three generations of pearl operating technicians on the same farm. Photos: L.E. Cartier, SSEF.
Pearl farming is still very labour-intensive today as the oysters need to be sorted and regularly cleaned from biofouling (e.g. algae). Photo: L.E. Cartier, SSEF.
Juvenile oysters are placed in lantern nets as they grow to maturity before they can be operated. Photo: L.E. Cartier, SSEF.
The fundamentals of the pearl oyster operating process have not changed greatly in over a century. Visible here are nucleus beads that will be inserted together with a mantle tissue piece (‘saibo’ being cut on the wooden board), into a host oyster. Photo: L.E. Cartier, SSEF.
Interestingly, in the production of ‘baby Akoya’ cultured pearls it is possible to insert two nuclei with two pieces of mantle tissue into an Akoya oyster. Photo: L.E. Cartier, SSEF.
Great thanks go to George Kakuda and the pearl farmers we could visit in Ago Bay. Photo: SSEF.
Pearl farming in Ago Bay takes place in a beautiful environment, so much that certain pearl farmers are providing tours and expanding into ecotourism. Photo: L.E. Cartier, SSEF.
Visting Andy Müller and Akira Horiguchi in Kobe. Andy has been a decades-long supporter of SSEF’s pearl research by generously providing us with numerous samples. Photo: Hinata Trading.