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Father of pearl in Vail

Cassie Pence
Vail CO, Colorado
AE Koji Pearls PU 2-15-07
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There’s no other gem like the pearl that garners such tall tales, legends and myths. Across cultures, it seems the pearl’s beauty is too great to go unexplained.

In Polynesian culture, the moon basks the ocean in its light to attract the oysters to the surface so that it may impregnate them with heavenly dew.

In many cultures, pearls symbolize tears, but ancient Indian warriors would encrust their swords with pearls giving a nod to the the sorrow and ultimate tears that a sword brings.



Pearls are associated with dragons in the Orient, and they’re worn to protect people from fires.

Pearls represent perfection and completeness in Islam writings.



Hindus were convinced that pearls were conceived in the brain and stomach of elephants and are rarely associated with their true creator, the oyster.

It was natural pearls, those found by chance on the beach or in the ocean by sailors and divers, that first inspired these legends. Natural pearls are still found the old fashioned way, one by one when people open oysters, but 95 percent of today’s pearls are cultured in water farms in Australia, Tahiti, Philippines and China, the home of freshwater pearls. Even though the pearls are “grown,” nature still determines the majority of the outcome.

“Harvesting is my favorite part. It’s a birth of a baby,” pearl expert Koji Kawamoto said. “Just one out of 100 pearls comes out beautiful. That’s why it’s so fascinating.”



Kawamoto is in town this weekend for a pearl jewelry show at Karats in Vail Village. He will be on hand to explain how to tell quality, talk about the origins and different types of pearls as well as how they are cultivated.

Hailing from Japan, Kawamoto’s family has harvested pearls for three generations. Kawamoto spent six years in Australia waters learning and teaching the trade, and now flies back and forth from Japan and New York, selling his stringed treasures.

The secrets of pearl cultivation were first discovered in the late 1800s by Kokichi Mikimoto, in Japan, who implanted the bead in Akoya oysters, producing the classic white pearl. Since then, the trade has evolved, and crops are harvested all over the world, yielding many different types of pearls.

“Any animal that can make its own shell, can make a pearl,” Dan Telleen, owner of Karats said. “It doesn’t mean it’s going to be a beautiful pearl.”

During cultivation, Kawamoto said, first wild oysters are caught and then seeded with a “nucleus” made from a shell. Telleen added that many of the shells used for seeds hail from clams harvested in the fresh waters of Mississippi, which are then sent over to Japan. That nucleus then starts the pearl.

After the seeding, or “the operation,” the oysters are hung inside a panel and reeled out into sea, attached to a long fishing line.

“Once every two weeks, we have to turn the oysters over and over, upside down or otherwise we cannot make a round pearl,” Kawamoto said.

The oyster shells are also cleaned free of any crustacean that attaches itself to it. After two to three years, the oysters are harvested in hopes many will have grown a pearl.

“Even though we culture, in order to make perfectly round or big size pearls, it’s very difficult,” Kawamoto said. “Only three percent of the harvest can be a very good gem quality.”

And nature still determines color. Different types of oysters produce different colors, but one never knows the exact shade, luster or size of the pearl until the shell is opened.


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