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<Column by Yoshiko Ikoma Column> Japanese Beauty: The Gentle Luster and Hidden Depths of Pearls

2018.01.20
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Sunset in the Ise-Shima region. These calm waters within the ria coast are home to countless pearls

What is the basis of beauty in Japanese culture? I found myself considering this question many times while watching the runways during Paris Fashion Week. Appearing between the Rococo- and Baroque-style dresses by European designers, the collections from my home country felt like a Japanese dish well flavored with dashi stock slipped in between the creamy, buttery courses at a traditional French restaurant. Richness versus simplicity: even through the medium and fashion, the difference between these two bases of beauty was readily apparent. Paris Fashion Week might be called a melting pot of aesthetics—a venue where a diversity of beauties can bloom, representing the wide range of value systems and aesthetic approaches brought to the collection by designers from around the world.

Since discovering the world of traditional crafts, I have encountered many examples of shining beauty in Japan. For the first installment of this series, I would like to discuss pearls. Pearls have always had a special fascination for me, and since taking on the role of Creative Director at Mie Prefecture’s antenna shop Mie Terrace in 2012 I have had many opportunities to visit pearl culturing farms and businesses dealing in pearls—not least because Mie Prefecture includes the Ise-Shima region, one of the world’s most important pearl centers. The current popularity of pearls can be at least partly attributed to Kokichi Mikimoto, who was born in Toba (now part of Mie Prefecture) and who went on to develop the pearl culturing process.

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Pearl culturing farm in Ise-Shima

What was it about pearls that made Mikimoto devote his life to them? I would argue that the answer is their luster. Pearls have a unique glow very different from the dazzle of the diamonds and gold traditionally used in Western jewelry. These are, after all, the bounty of the earth; pearls are a gift from the sea. Visiting a pearl culturing farm in Ise-Shima, I witnessed Akoya oysters being drawn from the water and opened on the spot to reveal the pearls within. Only one oyster in twenty, if that, had a pearl that was perfectly white and round. The others had a bluish cast or were tinged with pink or yellow—although these, of course, have a breathtaking beauty all their own. I will not soon forget how moved I was upon realizing that pearls could actually be colorful.

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(Left) In winter, the work of removing pearls continues at the pearl culturing farm
(Middle) The exciting moment when a pearl reveals itself. What color will it be? What shape?
(Right) Pearls freshly removed from their oysters

The pearl culturing process involves inserting a special nucleus into individual oysters and then returning them to the sea for two years. This makes pearls a kind of natural craft produced by Mother Ocean—but why should the result be so beloved around the world? And why should powerful women in particular, from the wives of heads of state (and female heads of state themselves—perhaps most famously Margaret Thatcher) to Hollywood celebrities, so often favor pearls over other kinds of jewelry?

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A pearl necklace destined to gently adorn a woman of power

I have spent the past two years developing the new brand HIRUME, which draws from both traditional crafts and fashion and is targeted at powerful, active women. Since the earliest stages, I had plans to incorporate pearls, but it had never occurred to me to ask why. Upon reflection, the answer became clear: because of their gentle luster. Pearls are said to give a woman’s skin its most beautiful glow, and the essence of that glow is surely gentleness. Perhaps women of power prefer to adorn themselves with pearls precisely because they know—if only subconsciously—that it will temper their strength with gentleness. Considering the matter from this point of view reveals a whole new meaning in the gleam of a pearl.

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HIRUME uses pearls in a variety of colors, including white, yellow, grey, and gold

The gentle luster of pearls combines a kind of glimmering faintness with a strong sense of depth. Examining the history of clothing in Japan reveals that jewelry for women was almost non-existent before the Meiji period (1868–1912) except for hair ornaments, obidome on kimono sashes (obi), and gold and silver thread woven into fabrics. In the Meiji period, however, women of the Imperial Household in particular began to adopt more kinds of jewelry, and pearls were key to this process. The deep connection to the Japanese people that this history suggests is obvious.

Pearls have been seen as relatively formal in the past, but in recent years it has become more popular to wear them in a more relaxed way. I look forward to bringing women more ways to enjoy pearls freely and elegantly as part of their fashion choices.

 

Profile: Yoshiko Ikoma

After positions at Vogue and Elle, became Editor-in-Chief of Marie Claire Japon. Departed the magazine in 2008 to become a freelance writer, editor, planner, and producer in fields including fashion, art, design, traditional crafts, ethical activities, Cool Japan, social contribution, and female empowerment. In 2010, became chief producer for the Craft Renaissance Wao project, which brought the world of traditional Japanese crafts to Paris, New York, and even Tokyo through fashion, design, and art. In 2017, founded the luxurious and creative original brand HIRUME based on traditional crafts, which is set for major activity in 2018.