Cultivation and the Twentieth Century’s Pearl Empires

Cultivation and the Twentieth Century's Pearl Empires

Kjell Ericson - CEAS Postdoctoral Associate & Lecturer in History

Wednesday, December 2, 2015 - 12:00pm
Room 241, Rosenkranz Hall See map
115 Prospect Street
New Haven, CT 06511
At the end of the First World War, one French newspaper called saltwater pearls an “international currency.” Not long thereafter, the arrival of round pearls cultivated along the shores of Japan threw the relationship between a pearl’s appearance, provenance, and exchange value into disarray. What was a “cultured” pearl, and what was its opposite? This presentation addresses this surprisingly complex question by first tracking the formation and transformation of export pearl cultivation estates along imperial Japanese coastlines. Pearl cultivation arose amid legal changes to fisheries management and the scope of intellectual property claims in Meiji Japan. The prospect of owning shellfish as livestock—and of manipulating marine creatures in order to induce the formation of pearls for Western rather than for Chinese consumers—brought dramatic changes to livelihoods, gender roles, and ecologies along far-flung coastlines. Cultivation, in turn, provoked new questions about what, or who, made a pearl a pearl.

Kjell Ericson is a historian of Japan with interests in science, law, and oceans. Kjell received his Ph.D. from Princeton University. His current research project examines the intertwined twentieth century histories of marine pearl cultivation in the Japanese empire and machine-mediated methods for telling “natural” pearls apart from “cultured” or “cultivated” ones in post-WWI Europe. Amid dramatic transformations in Japan’s patent and fisheries laws, marine entrepreneurs began to raise and surgically manipulate living shellfish in order to produce pearls on a massive scale. Pearl and precious stone wholesalers in England and France sought to create distinctions between their own pearls and new ones from Japan that looked virtually identical on the surface. Making use of archival materials on four continents, this project reconstructs the global activities of Mikimoto Kōkichi, a man whose pearl business was at the center of multiple contests over the meaning of cultivation on land and sea. During his time at Yale, Kjell plans to revise his dissertation for publication and teach an undergraduate seminar called “Japan and the Ocean, 1600-Present.” 

A light lunch will be provided.  Please RSVP to by 11/27.

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