“At last, ” Ume exclaimed holding up a cultured pearl. The day was July 11, 1893… exactly 121 years ago that Ume’s discovery would change the entire world of jewelry. Ume was working alongside of her husband doing the routine work of opening oyster shells when she made her discovery. This discovery was a semi-spherical pearl, or mabe pearl, embedded in the side of the oyster shell. It was one of five pearls discovered that day and was the result of five years of labor. This day marked the beginning of the cultured pearl industry and marked the end of the natural pearl industry which had boomed until this point. In one moment, the decline of one industry began with the rise of another.
And because of this discovery and Ume and the hard work of her husband, Kokichi Mikimoto, we have cultured pearls today. Yes, Ume is Mikimoto’s wife. She was with him while he grew his cultured pearl farm and she was the one to discover the first cultured pearl after waiting for so long for their dreams to be realized.
Just one year prior they had suffered a red tide, a bloom of toxic organisms that wipes out fish and oyster populations. And exactly four years later, Ume passed away at the young age of 32. It took Mikimoto until 1905 to culture a full spherical pearl. Ume never saw the full round pearls yet, near the time of her death, she is quoted as saying, “Since I have seen a pearl produced I can leave without regret.”
We never hear much about Ume and her impact on Mikimoto’s creation of marketable cultured pearls but we know that she was a woman that helped him build his cultured pearl empire. Even after her death, Mikimoto remained committed to his dream. He also never committed himself to another woman and raised their 5 children alone.
Happy 121st birthday cultured pearls!
I am a modern day treasure hunter who travels the world for gorgeous pearls and amazing adventures. I own a pearl jewelry and jewelry repair business, ThePearlGirls.com, with a cute retail store in Athens, GA. I also have a Pearl Travel business and travel blog at TheWorldofPearl.com.