The first cultured freshwater pearls originated in Japan. Although the Chinese were the first to culture a product from freshwater mussels, these were not pearls. Their centuries-old Buddhas are not true pearls but shell mabes. Quite soon after their initial success with cultured saltwater pearls.
Pearls producers in Japan experimented with fresh water mussels and produced beautiful pearls. Japanese pearl farmers experimented with freshwater mussels in Lake Biwa, a large lake near Kyoto. Initial commercial freshwater pearl crops appeared in the 1930s. The all-nacre Biwa pearls formed in colors unseen in saltwater pearls. Almost instantly appealing, their luster and luminescent depth rivaled naturals because they, too, were pearls throughout. During the World War II there was a slump in the production of Biwa pearls, resulting in an interruption in the flow of Lake Biwa pearls.
But by the 1950s markets were again flooded with them. Strands sold in Japan as less expensive, colorful alternatives to the mainstay material, cultured saltwater pearls. Biwas' success and publicity were so effective that until a few years ago, all freshwater pearls were routinely referred to as "Biwas," no matter their origin or that such references are illegal in the U.S. unless the pearls are actually from Biwa. Large scale productions started in the Biwa Lake and almost all of the world's supplies came from here.
Till about 1973, freshwater pearl production still thrived in Lake Biwa. But, although the lake supplied most of the world's freshwater pearls, there were warning signs as development pressed toward its shores. By 1984, Biwa's pearl farms were barely surviving, because of pollutants washing in from farms, resorts, and industries around the lake.
Excessive harvesting also resulted in extinction of the species of the mollusks used in the culturing of the pearls. There came a stage when the no more pearls could be cultured in the Biwa Lake. Japan had an added disadvantage that it was a small country with a limited land area and no big lakes, rivers or freshwater bodies where to move their production to. Japan also had a smaller workforce. So, although the Japanese had by now developed excellent expertise but did not have the resources whereby to exploit it and produce pearls.
This resulted in a shift of the production from Japan to China. Markets were in short supply of the freshwater pearls and China saw a great opportunity in this.
Vivian Liu is the owner of Wholesale Pearl Jewelry, Pearl Jewelry, Fashion Jewelry, and Fashion Jewelry, Costume Jewelry.