History of South Sea Pearl Cultivation – William Saville-Kent

The history of South Sea pearl cultivation transformed the modern pearl industry.

South Sea pearls had been sourced from the silver-lipped and gold-lipped, ‘Pinctada Maxima’ oyster of Australia’s waters since the dawn of time. For thousands of years, Aboriginal fishermen had dove for these naturally occurring South Sea pearl oysters using their meat, shell and pearls for trade and tribute. Unfortunately, as with all things precious, by the late 1800s the modern world had all but depleted Australia’s natural South Sea pearl resource. However, off the north-eastern coast of Australia, a method was being unearthed that would not only revitalize Australia’s South Sea pearl industry but pearl production the world-over.

The British marine biologist, William Saville-Kent, served two posts as Australia’s Commissioner of Fisheries, one in Queensland and one in Western Australia. In 1891, while on Queensland’s Thursday Island, Saville-Kent experimented with grafting one oyster’s mantle tissue, inserted with a nucleus of shell, into another oyster’s mantle. This caused the formation of a pearl sack which produced nacre covering the nucleus to form a spherical pearl.

Pioneering the technique, William Saville-Kent, acting as scientist and Commissioner freely passed the method onto other interested parties working in Australia’s north-eastern pearl industry. At that time, Australia’s pearl industry comprised of tens of thousands of people, including Aboriginal Australians, Europeans, Chinese, Malaysian and Japanese; amongst who were Tatsuhei Mise and Tokishi Nishikawa.

It should be noted that many cultivated pearl industry texts on the web wrongly credit the Japanese entrepreneurs Tatsuhei Mise, Tokishi Nishikawa and Mikimoto Kokichi, with the invention of the nucleated cultivation technique. To this day, William Saville-Kent is not officially recognized as the father of this procedure and the resulting cultivated round pearl.

In 1907, both Mise and Nishikawa applied for the patent of Saville-Kent’s method, but realizing that they were now competing against each other they unified to patent and name it the ‘Mise-Nishikawa’ method. That same year, quite probably in search of sponsorship, Nishikawa wrote to Mikimoto Kokichi telling him of his discovery; “…I have found the cause of Japanese pearl formation, i.e. the reason why and how the pearl is produced in the tissue of the oyster…” (G.F Kunz: ‘The Book of the Pearl’ 1908).

In 1916, Mikimoto and Nishikawa joined forces and went into large scale production using Saville-Kent’s original technique, using it to cultivate the Akoya ‘Pinctada Fucata’ pearl oyster. The implementation of this ground-breaking procedure marked the beginnings of a boom in Japan’s pearl industry. By 1935 Japan was producing more than 10,000,000 cultured pearls every year.