Pearls in Modern History

In the Western Hemisphere, Native Americans also valued the freshwater pearls they had discovered and harvested from lakes and rivers. The story is told of a Native American princess, who presented Hernando de Soto with gifts of animal skins, cloth, copper and freshwater pearls. Colonizers from Spain, France and England all found native tribes using pearls as jewelry and for trade. Indeed, once the colonial powers discovered the sheer volume of pearls available in America's rivers, pearls became one of the chief products sent from the colonies back to Europe. Along with freshwater pearls from North American rivers, saltwater pearls were harvested from the Caribbean and along the coasts of Central and South America. All of these pearl supplies began to dry up during the 19th century, however, as a result of over fishing and the pollution caused by industrialization.

The History Of Pearls In North America

In addition to the pearls themselves, American mother-of-pearl also became a major export, both from the North American colonies and, later, from the United States. A primary use of mother-of-pearl was to make shiny, iridescent clothing buttons, of which billions were exported all over the world (mainly from Iowa). This lasted all the way through the mid-20th century, when the invention of plastic quickly replaced mother-of-pearl for this use. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the history of pearls reached a major turning point. At that time, a number of Japanese researchers had independently discovered the techniques that could be used to cause oysters to create pearls essentially "on demand." The man who finally combined the various technical processes with business acumen and worldwide marketing know-how, was Kokichi Mikimoto, the son of a restaurateur. Today, Mikimoto is credited with almost single-handedly having created the worldwide cultured pearl industry.

The Effect of Pearl Culturing on Modern Pearls

The effect on the pearl industry of the discovery of pearl culturing, combined with Mikimoto's marketing enthusiasm, cannot be understated. During a span of less than 50 years at the beginning of the 20th century, thousands of years of pearl history were rewritten. Pearls -- historically the exclusive possessions of royalty and aristocracy -- became available to virtually anyone on the planet. Rather than pearl divers hunting, often in vain, for the elusive, naturally formed pearls, pearl farmers could now cultivate thousands upon thousands of pearls in virtually the same way as a wheat or corn farmer grows his own crop. And pearl lovers throughout the world could reap the benefits.