By Andrea Bennett for Wynn Magazine

IN 1893, THE INNOVATOR KOKICHI MIKIMOTO CULTURED THE FIRST PEARL ON A SMALL ISLAND off Toba, in Mie Prefecture, Japan. He had in effect democratized the pearl, a natural gem so rare that fewer than one in a thousand oyster shells may produce one in their lifetime. Now the luxury could be worn by more than just the royal and ultra-wealthy.

He had become famous in his own right by the time he visited the inventor Thomas Edison, a man he had always admired, in his West Orange, New Jersey laboratory 34 years later. By then, he had opened the first Mikimoto pearl shop in the fashionable Ginza district of Tokyo in 1899 and expanded internationally to London, Shanghai, Paris, and New York.

But the veneration between the two innovators was mutual. During their visit together, Edison said to Mikimoto that the pearl he had given him to inspect wasn’t a cultured pearl, but a real pearl.

“There are two things which couldn’t be made at my laboratory—diamonds and pearls. It is one of the wonders of the world that you were able to culture pearls. It is something which is supposed to be biologically impossible,” he is said to have told his visitor. Mikimoto responded, with characteristic humility, “If you were the moon of the world of inventors, I would simply be one of the many tiny stars.”


The two continued their friendship—Edison later sending Mikimoto a letter to his Pearl Island congratulating him for a government honor. It is a moment in Japanese history that has become part of the historical bedrock for Japanese schoolchildren, hundreds of whom visit Mikimoto Pearl Island to learn about the child of a noodle shop owner, who left school to sell vegetables to help support his family at the age of 11, and became—with the treasures he produced—a literal national treasure himself.

Selected as one of Japan’s top 10 inventors by the Japanese government, he was posthumously awarded the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Sacred Treasure.

“Most Japanese people learn about Mikimoto in their formative years,” says Yugo Tsukikawa, senior vice-president of marketing and brand strategy for Mikimoto.

On the Pearl Island they learn about Mikimoto’s journey to culture the pearl and take in demonstrations by the female Ama free divers, who collect oysters from the seabed to be seeded with pearl-producing nuclei and returned until harvest time. The Pearl Museum includes treasures such as the Liberty Bell exhibited at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, made of 12,250 pearls and 366 diamonds; and a scale model of the famous Himeji Castle, made of 19,000 pearls and 447 diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, and rubies.

For a brand rooted in Japanese tradition, Mikimoto the innovator signaled early that his enterprise would modernize with the times.

“In the early 1900s, people were still wearing traditional Japanese kimono, so some of our product selections were not pearl necklaces, but rather sash clips and hair ornaments,” Tsukikawa says.

In fact, one of the most groundbreaking of Mikimoto’s creations is known as the Obidome-Yaguruma, a sash clip made from 41 pearls, diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, platinum, and 18K gold. Exhibited at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in Paris in 1937, it was considered a technological wonder, in that its components could be rearranged to make 12 distinct accessories.

“As far as the pearl necklace and earring go, they’re the classic pieces that go with everything. We always say that fashion works around us, rather than the other way around.” – Yugo Tsukikawa, Mikimoto's Senior VP, Marketing & Brand Strategy

By the early years of the 20th century, women were wearing both the kimono for formal occasions and Western dress for everyday.

“One of the favorite images I’ve seen is of a woman in kimono wearing sash clips and hair ornaments, but alongside her, another woman wearing Western clothes, earrings, and a classic pearl necklace,” Tsukikawa says. “Even with the simple, classic necklace, his vision was very clear. He said he wanted to adorn the necks of all women around the world, so we as a company continued to thrive on that vision. But at the same time, we expanded to a variety of different designs, from classics to haute couture.”

Now an official “Haute Joaillerie” member of the exclusive Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, Mikimoto creates a high jewelry show each year. “We do this, in some ways, because we have the ability to do so,” Tsukikawa says. “We use the same factory in Meguro [in Tokyo], over 100 years old, using proprietary techniques that have been passed down generationally. Very few companies are still structured that way.”

Its most recent high jewelry collection, Jardin Mystérieux, is as ornate and festive as you might imagine. A latticed garden gate is bedecked with a canopy of blooming sapphire, emerald, and pearl flowers and vines. A coy jeweled peacock perches on a diamond balustrade brooch. Black South Sea pearl “olives” stud a delicate diamond and tourmaline vine necklace, its centerpiece a breathtaking 16.43-carat, triangle-cut Paraiba tourmaline. All showcase the mastery of the artisans that painstakingly create the pieces by hand and the many colors—pink, peacock, violet, green, white—of luminous pearls available to them.

Now, Wynn guests are able to experience the magic of a Mikimoto shopping experience in the new Mikimoto boutique in Wynn Las Vegas—the first in the U.S. to be modeled after the Ginza flagship store. Guests pass through a wave in the entryway, inspired by the waves of the ocean, into a store that is imbued with warm gold tones. Little details all over recall the Japanese flagship, Tsukikawa says, down to the perfectly round door handles at the entrance.

“People don’t often look up, but if you do, you’ll see there’s a circular pattern right overhead, and the lighting is in a circular pattern. These subtle details connect the brand and the experience.”

“You see all different people in Wynn and in Las Vegas, and that’s why they chose the variety of the baroque pearls, because they have many facets to show. To them, that is what Las Vegas is all about.”

Importantly, he says, Mikimoto wanted to convey the feeling of being in a very luxurious yet comfortable space.

‌‌To commemorate its opening, Mikimoto designed a set of Wynn-exclusive pearl necklaces and bracelets—limited to 20 pieces each.

“When the Japan team envisioned Wynn in Las Vegas," Tsukikawa said, "they thought of a very dynamic environment. They used black South Sea pearls because even black pearls come in an array of colors, from peacock green to even a copper tone. They used baroque pearls because none of them are identical. From every angle, the light hits differently.

“You see all different people in Wynn and in Las Vegas, and that’s why they chose the variety of the baroque pearls, because they have many facets to show. To them, that is what Las Vegas is all about.”

Should you choose to shop virtually, Mikimoto’s ambassador consultants—the most highly trained of all the associates, who operate from four exclusive U.S. boutiques—deliver the Mikimoto experience via the most nuanced of online experiences. Pearl-specific lighting highlights the many colors of the pearls, so difficult to capture in an online experience. Special backgrounds assist in conveying the pearls’ real luminosity and color. The consultants were already equipped for this kind of shopping experience and are now serving clients however they prefer to be served. It’s a kind of versatility that’s possible when the product you deliver is an all-time classic.

“As far as the pearl necklace and earring go,” Tsukikawa says. “They’re the classic pieces that go with everything. We always say that fashion works around us, rather than the other way around.”

Volume can increase, designs can diversify, and technology can make shopping easier, but the fundamental design to “adorn the necks of all women around the world” will always be Kokichi Mikimoto’s own innovation.