Japan Kasumi-ga-Ura freshwater pearls are being cultivated in 2009 by only 5 operators. Since the mid-1980’s, they and a handful of families in the Lake Biwa area are the only active freshwater pearl cultivators in all of Japan. Some have no pearls to harvest this year, others only mediocre qualities. With the best luck imaginable, their combined production volume will remain minimal… that it has not vanished altogether is due only to their individual dedication to their craft.
Japan freshwater pearl production, most noted for its many participants in the Lake Biwa area, employed thousands of people during the 1970’s and early 80’s. Biwa pearls were a synonym for freshwater pearls for decades. Environmental conditions in the late 1980’s brought all efforts to an end. The re-establishment, albeit on a minimal scale, of production in the Kasumi-ga-Ura area (some 40 miles northwest of Tokyo) defied environment and marketplace alike. Chinese production of most FW pearl types except bead-nucleated had seen a lot of progress by the early 1990s. All types of cultivation except in-body bead nucleation were abandoned at this point because the market price of the pearls they yield could not cover production costs in Japan.
A bigger challenge to this cottage industry’s survival is the suddenly widespread availability in 2010 of in-body bead nucleated freshwater pearls from China. X-rays confirm that a new type of bead-nucleated pearl has through-drilled nuclei, a requirement of Japan-style in-body nucleation. Made the same way, probably using a Hieryopsis schlegeli/cumingii hybrid, these pearls naturally have more similarities to Japan Kasumi pearls than to China Flame pearls. There are differences between Japan Kasumi harvests from individual producers and in various years; yet there can be no more doubt that China has this capability. In the midst of a shakeout of marginal pearl producers with other manufacturing industries competing for workers, is is hard to predict how rapidly; we believe there will be much higher quality bead-nucleated pearls from China in future using in-body bead nucleation.
Pacific Pearls imported a considerable portion of the baroque pearls harvested in the Kasumi-ga-Ura area since 1992. Enthusiasts competed for those with the most unusual colors. Since the blight of 2003, which caused the loss of some 80% of Japan Kasumi pearls being cultivated, the baroque component of each year’s harvest was much smaller. Since smoother pearls fetch higher prices in most markets, a scarcity of baroques is not per se a disaster for the cultivators. However, the strong colors we admire in the baroques do not occur in the higher, ie smoother qualities.
Even those mussels which were exposed to the bad water before being operated sustained permanent damage, and produced considerably less nacre than expected in the 3 to 4-year period. In 2010 the there were more baroques harvested than in nearly a decade, from mussels that were never exposed to the blight. Still, the death rate is rising, and farmers are eager for new genes to produce more resistant hybrids.