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Saturday, Sept. 4, 1999

In pursuit of glittering perfection

Staff writer

Mikimoto pearls have always ranked high among Japanese girls. They're the top choice for a first jewelry present from parents, for Coming-of-Age Day, or for weddings.

Although the world-famous Mikimoto pearl store, K. Mikimoto Co. Ltd., is almost synonymous with pearls ranging from Akoya to South Sea, and has attracted not only Japanese customers but international ones as well since it opened in 1899, the company is also famous for its high-quality jewelry in silver and gold set with pearls or diamonds.

Kokichi Mikimoto, the founder of K. Mikimoto, was the first person to succeed in culturing pearls in Japan. He opened the first Mikimoto Pearl Store in Ginza, Tokyo, and overseas branches such as London, New York and Paris followed in the early 20th century. In 1907, Mikimoto Workshops, the first jewelry production studio in Japan, was also established.

Kunihiko Akiba, a cheerful, petite man with a 28-year career making jewelry at this production studio, says that jewelry making is such a profound task that he still has much more to learn.

"I'm never completely satisfied with my work," says Akiba. "When a piece of jewelry is completed, there's always something I don't like about it. But I think that becomes my motivation to continue [making it]," he says.

It is surprising to see how few tools and raw materials are needed to make any piece of jewelry, whether it be a pendant, a ring or an ornate brooch. All he really needs is a piece of silver or gold plate, a file and a yattoko (similar to a pair of pliers). The only machinery he uses is an electric drill and the rest is all hand-crafted. According to Akiba, what is distinctive about Mikimoto's jewelry making is that firstly, the raw material is selected very carefully. Secondly, all their jewelry is totally original and only one piece of jewelry can be made out of one design. Last but not least, their processing skills are excellent.

"We put our heart into the parts that usually aren't seen such as the back of a brooch or the inner part of a ring. Jewelry is something that we put next to our skin, so we have to be sensitive to those parts and polish them well. It is important that one feels comfortable when the jewelry is put on," he says.

Eager to learn more about jewelry, he recently went to Paris to study jewelry making at a studio there for half a year. He says while studying there, he learned the difference between Japanese and Western-style jewelry making. He points out that Western-style jewelry is more three-dimensional and ornamental compared to the Japanese which is simple and delicate. He says that he aims to create jewelry that is both three-dimensional and delicate, and to bring out the strong points of both styles.

Akiba says that having a father who was a cabinetmaker, he always wanted to have a job in which he made something by hand. At technological school for metalwork, he found out about metal chasing and got interested in working for K. Mikimoto.

Now after 28 years, he still enjoys every second of making jewelry and says that he never gets bored even if he has to work on the same piece of jewelry for seven to 10 days or more (almost three months to make a necklace).

"I really enjoy the process of receiving a design from the designer and expanding the image into the end product in my mind. It could end up quite different from the original design and that's exciting," he says with a smile.

According to Akiba, jewelry making is divided into three parts: processing, polishing and setting the jewels. Each of the 110 craftsmen is assigned to a section and Akiba has always processed jewelry since he joined the company.

"Seventy percent of jewelry making is in the processing. It needs the most time and sensitivity," says the skilled craftsman.

A true romantic, Akiba says that he wants his jewelry to be as beautiful as possible.

"It's not a matter of what sells well. Also, it can't be something that's only self-satisfying. I want my jewelry to attract the customers strongly and be highly valued by them."

K. Mikimoto & Co. Ltd., 4-5-5 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo. For info call (03) 3562-3167

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