Less flashy than a diamond, more mysterious than an opal, the lustrous natural pearl has an aesthetic and material value that reflects its rareness. In the 1890s, Kokichi Mikimoto perfected the process of creating whole cultured pearls by introducing an irritant into an oyster's tissue, thereby making high-quality pearl jewelry more available and affordable. Japan currently exports around $400 million of cultured pearls a year. Whether strung into a classic Tiffany necklace or into a dramatic multi-strand choker for Christian Dior couture, Japanese pearls have become a must-have accessory that never goes out of style. But beneath the luster lurks a mysterious disease that has been killing off oysters in Japan's main pearl farms for the past few years. With no cure in sight, could cultured pearls become as rare as their natural counterparts?
The small island of Masaki in central Japan's Ago Bay was once called Treasure Island because of the riches pearl cultivation brought to its residents. Then, in July 1992, a deadly red tide of poisonous plankton struck the bay. It has recurred almost every year since. The mortality rate of oysters has risen from about 30% to more than 55%. In 1997, the island's pearl revenues were just $1.5 million, 40% of the earnings five years earlier. And there has been a human toll: more than half of the pearl farmers in Masaki have been forced out of business since 1988.
In 1996, a more threatening scourge hit oysters in Ehime prefecture. Since that area provides 70% of Japan's mother-oysters, which are raised to accept the pearl seeds, the mystery disease rapidly spread to other pearl-cultivating sites. "In the case of red tide, we can move our oysters to a safe place," says Nobutaka Yamagiwa, a pearl grower on Ago Bay. "But this time there is nothing we can do but watch oysters die." At some point in the season, growers usually clean the oysters to remove any attachments from the shells. But the new disease makes the shells so fragile that cleaning is impossible. As a result, the quality of the pearls produced by the oysters that do survive has suffered. Experts estimate that only 20% of the total harvest is good enough for jewelry.
The farmers are frustrated that the theories for what's behind the disease are many while the solutions are few. At first, some suspected formalin, a pesticide used in globefish cultivation. Others have blamed the El Nino current, overcrowded cultivation, even a recessive gene that has suddenly emerged due to repetitive mating. The Fishery Agency now suspects an infectious parasite, Perkinsus, previously nonexistent in Japanese waters. In the end, the root cause may be very simple: the ecosystem has changed because of decades of continuous cultivation--and its pollutant by-products. But while researchers debate causes, the mollusk massacre continues.
What does this mean for consumers shopping for pearls? After all, Japan's Akoya cultured pearls dominate 80% of the Japanese market and account for nearly 65% of sales in the United States. Major companies like Mikimoto have inventories large enough to last two or three more years, so the effect of the oyster blight on prices may not be felt for a while. In addition, demand has dropped at home and in other Asian nations because of the region's financial crisis: in Japan, total sales of pearls have fallen 40% since 1995. "If this was happening in the bubble economy, good pearls would be priceless," says Hiroyuki Nakayama, owner of Yamato Bros., a retailer in Tokyo's Ginza district. "Because of falling demand, supply meets demand," he points out, and so retail prices are stable--for now.
In Europe and America, pearl jewelry has been the accessory of choice to complement the feminine, luxurious clothes in fashion the past few seasons. While higher prices have been reported at Tiffany & Co. and other luxury chains, some pearl specialists do not foresee problems with supply. Christianne Coleman Douglas, who designs beautifully versatile pearl jewelry in London, says her suppliers are confident they can continue to meet her needs, and adds that China is an increasingly important source for cultured pearls.
The situation may not be so dire for consumers, but for the Japanese pearl producers, it's hard to see the bright side. Perhaps a disease that enforces nature's law of survival of the fittest, some observers muse, is what's best for an industry that had reached its saturation point, economically and environmentally. "Japan's pearl growers have produced too many cheap pearls," says Shigeru Akamatsu, vice chairman of the Japan Pearl Promotion Society's research committee. "Now only good-quality pearls can survive." The esoteric appeal of the pearl depends on it.