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Family jewels

To survive, Ise Shima's cultured pearl industry needs to set its sights beyond Japan.

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Akoya pearls . . . you can see your reflection on each pearl.

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These pearl earrings with inter-changeable parts clinched the top prize in Pearl Falco's 2019 design competition.

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"I have to build up our brand and the new team in Singapore. Then I have to target the world," says Maiko Makito.

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Oyster rafts dot the coast line around Ise Shima, the birthplace of the cultured pearl.

LONG before Covid-19 forced remote working on everyone, Maiko Makito ran her family's Japan-based pearl jewellery business from Singapore, travelling back to Japan for 10-day work trips every month or so and managing the company virtually the rest of the time.

She is the co-owner and managing director of Pearl Falco Corp, based in Ise Shima, in Japan's Mie prefecture, as well as its Singapore subsidiary.

She has lived in Singapore since 2005 when her employer at that time, NEC Asia Pacific, posted her to work at its office here.

In 2016, she took over the running of her family company from her father and expanded it to Singapore and Asia with the opening of a Singapore gallery in 2019.

"Working overseas as an expatriate for a multinational company is a dream career for Japanese graduates," she said.

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"Both my sister, who is a doctor in Tokyo, and I didn't want to work in the pearl jewellery industry because we had seen as children how tough it was. But my parents were getting older and I saw it as my responsibility as the eldest child to continue the family business."

It helps that Pearl Falco's origins in Ise Shima burnishes its pedigree in the pearl industry.

Less well known outside Japan, Ise Shima is a top domestic destination for Japanese tourists all year round and with good reason.

The region is home to Ise Jingu, the oldest and most sacred Shinto shrine in Japan. Its rugged coastline, dotted with oyster rafts, yields an abundance of seafood, particularly spiny lobsters and oysters.

Ise Shima is known for its 2,000 year old tradition of women oyster divers or "ama".

Perfectly round pearls in Akoya oysters

Most importantly for Pearl Falco, Ise Shima is the birthplace of the cultured pearl. It was in Ago Bay in the late-1880s that Mikimoto Kokichi pioneered a method for cultivating perfectly round pearls in Akoya oysters.

These same Akoya pearls feature prominently in Pearl Falco's 4,000-piece jewellery collection on display at its two large galleries in Ise city and Shima city.

Before the pandemic hit, Pearl Falco's Ise Shima stores saw brisk business from a constant stream of domestic tourist groups, drawn to pearl jewellery priced from S$50 to over S$20,000.

In contrast, Pearl Falco's Singapore operations started modestly with small events and shows helmed by Ms Makito with help from the company's Japanese staff.

Last year, Pearl Falco set up a Singapore gallery in a shophouse in Mohamed Sultan Road. The gallery showcases about 300 pieces of jewellery, in prices that range from S$300 to S$10,000. Customers are mainly referrals from existing customers.

Affluent Japanese have long had a culture of wearing and gifting pearls. Parents may present their daughter with pearl earrings and a strand of pearls as a coming-of-age gift when she turns 20 or at her wedding.

Husbands buy pearl pendants or earrings as anniversary or birthday gifts for their wives. Such practices are less common in Asia outside Japan but therein lies the opportunity for growth for Japanese jewellers like Pearl Falco.

"Many Asian people are not familiar with the value of pearls or have the practice of wearing or gifting pearls. I feel this presents us with many opportunities to promote pearl appreciation among Asian consumers and to tap into the vast potential of the Asian market," said Ms Makito.

The first step in this process of creating a demand for pearls is education. Ms Makito conducts regular pearl appreciation workshops at her Singapore gallery.

Pearl Falco Corp, supported by the Japanese government and industry partners, also organises an annual international jewellery design competition to promote the pearl industry and the Ise Shima branding.

Now into its third year, this year's competition drew 55 entries from 10 countries with a few Singapore students from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and Raffles Design Institute joining the competition for the third year running.

The competition entries for 2020 are currently exhibited in Pearl Falco's Ise gallery from where they will be moved to Singapore and displayed at the Japan Creative Centre, Embassy of Japan, from Dec 3 to Dec 19. The exhibition is open to the public.

Despite Ms Makito's best efforts, she is keenly aware that the Japanese luxury cultured pearl industry is grappling with some serious challenges.

As experienced oyster pearl farmers age, their numbers are dwindling rapidly, a situation made worse by the contraction in the Japanese economy and the country's shrinking population base.

At the same time, Akoya oyster cultivation demands no less than daily observation and constant vigilance.

The reality is that after years of focussed cultivation methods, fewer than 30 per cent of cultured pearls harvested can be used for jewellery production. What's more, the harvest itself is not assured.

"These precious oysters are meticulously protected from every conceivable threat to ensure they yield the finest pearls," said Ms Makito.

"But nature is unpredictable. In 2019, up to 80 per cent of the Akoya pearl oyster harvest was destroyed and we believe this was because global warming led to changes in the sea temperature and seawater clarity."

To survive, Ms Makito believes Ise Shima's cultured pearl industry has to set its sights beyond Japan.

"I might be the only person who manages a company in Ise Shima from outside Japan. Of course, it is not easy but the world is becoming closer than my parents' time," she said.

"As a small company based in the Japanese countryside, we cannot survive by waiting there anymore. We need different views, different people and different teams so that Pearl Falco can survive and pass this tradition and our knowledge to the next generation. I have to build up our brand and the new team in Singapore. Then I have to target the world."

  • For more information on the Singapore exhibition of The Grand Prix of Akoya Pearl Jewellery 2020 and related events, visit www.pearlfalco.com/the-1st-singapore-pearl-jewelry-competition/

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