How World War II Impacted the Pearl Industry

How World War Impacted the Pearl Industry - Spey Co. Fine Pearl Jewelry of Washington, DC
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Conflict is a friend to no one, particularly on the grand scale and devastation inflicted during World War II. Throughout Europe, North Africa, and the East, hostilities erupted and lives were thrown into chaos. Much has been discussed on the overthrow of empires and the staggering extent of human migration, but, pearl-minded as we are, we at Spey cannot help but wonder: how did war impact the pearl industry?

It must come as no surprise that much of the Japanese pearl industry was devastated during World War II. The birthplace of modern pearl culturing, Japan weathered the brunt of Allied military action in the Pacific theatre. Islands were burnt, villages razed, and countless communities displaced. Even Mikimoto’s flagship store in the Ginza District of Tokyo crumbled to the ground as the United States and her allies retaliated against the aggression of Pearl Harbor.

 

Plunging pearl stocks…

With no infrastructure left, nor skilled workers to tend the delicate oysters quietly nurturing pearls in farms across the South Pacific, production fell to only 5 percent of the pre-war output. Indeed, some isolated communities kept tending their precious stock, but from a high of over 7 million pearls produced in 1938 within Mie Prefecture (a major pearl hub), merely 370 thousand pearls were harvested in 1946.

 

…and plunging for pearls left behind

Following Japan’s surrender, the MacArthur Administration and the occupying forces took a keen interest in the redevelopment of the industry supplying this organic gem. Recognizing the commercial value and global demand for lustrous pearls, the Allies called upon the Japanese to resume full production. But pearls take many years to develop, so ramping-up supplies was no small task. While the foundations were laid for rebuilding the industry, skilled ama divers plunged to the depths to locate nets of oysters abandoned at the onset of war. Though few, these ‘war pearls’ helped curtail dwindling jewelers’ supplies.

Of course, the importance of this natural product was not lost on the new administration who reported to Washington, DC – albeit, not the more altruistically important benefits to the environment or the sustainability of pearl farming. Their motivation was profit, and orders were given from the High Commander of the Allied Forces that the pearl harvest only be sold to the Central Office of American Supplies, or to GIs and their families stationed in Japan. To the victors go the spoils.

 

The spark of pearl fever

Blushing girlfriends back Stateside were only too eager to welcome their men home – especially if they came bearing gifts of lustrous Japanese pearls (we envision such a gift eliciting a response of ecstatic jubilation, like those V-Day celebrants pictured above). Thus began the spark of pearl fever in America and the democratization of the pearl for every woman. The pearl is a statement in timeless elegance, and Spey is proud to craft artisanal pearl jewelry for today’s women of distinctive style.