Unlike gemstones or precious metals, pearl jewellery typically conjures up certain stereotypes in the UK. Pearls are the stuff of traditionalism, conservatism, the well-to-do upper middle-classes, toothsome, horse-loving, boarding school-attending, Sloaney women. Ponder pearls and you may think of Lady Di or, in fiction, The Good Life’s Margo Leadbetter or perhaps the aspiring Hyacinth Bucket. You don’t think dynamic, progressive design. Yet.
“Oh, it’s not just in the UK,” says Toshikazu Tajima, the CEO of Tasaki, a multi-million dollar Japanese pearl jewellery company that next year marks its 70th anniversary – you may know its Bond Street boutique, its one-and-only point of sale in the UK so far. “Our major challenge is to change perceptions. We’ve gone through the same challenges in China, and in France. Even in Japan, pearl is considered a classy, elegant, rather formal material that you wear more for formal occasions. Pearls are what the Queen wears. I think that idea’s still true, but pearl is a material with much greater potential. There’s no reason why pearls can’t be worn daily.”
Changing that perception is not an easy task, especially for a brand that, in the UK at least, is effectively new, even relative to the more classical Mikimoto, the other big player in Japanese pearls. What makes Tasaki stand apart from the competition, however, is “a philosophy to be different. We’re always trying to think outside of the box,” as Tajima, who joined the company in 2009, puts it. Think minimalistic directness, geometric – even asymmetric – playfulness, combined with boldly colourful gemstones, pearls literally drilled and sliced if not yet diced.
“That means what we make may be too avant-garde for some people to wear,” Tajima concedes. “I think western consumers see Japanese goods as having logical value [first and foremost]: quality, craft and so on. That’s fine. But if you aim to build the necessary emotional value too, as we’re doing, you need to stand out, which I think comes through design. We find that if we can get people to see our jewellery then it really sells well.”
Tajima’s career prior to Tasaki was, effectively, in introducing western luxury goods brands – the likes of Gucci, Fendi, Christian Dior – to the Japanese market. It was that experience that led him to realise that, in turn, there were Japanese brands with the same kind of heritage and audience that could, likewise, be introduced to the west.
“It was chance that one of my colleagues at Christian Dior got married to a member of the Tasaki family and at the wedding I got talking to the founder and, two weeks later, he offered me a job. Actually, he offered me sales manager [at a regional office],” Tajima chuckles. “I had to tell him that I was already general manager for Christian Dior so I couldn’t really take that offer. So the deal wasn’t quite done… But I thought [Tasaki] was a challenge, to take something like that out of Japan – and I was convinced it could be done. Convincing my Tasaki colleagues was something else.”
Tajima cites, by way of example, their insistence that pearls should always be round. If that sounds a little obvious, it perhaps speaks to our conditioning as to what we expect pearls to look like, and also, to how jewellers have worked with them. So when he put forward one design – arguably Tasaki’s most outlandish and demanding to date, which the pearls have sections cut out of them, revealing their less than pearly-white interior – you can imagine their reaction.
“They just said ‘Well, that’s impossible! How can you do that?’,” Tajima recalls. “So I had to spend tonnes of time talking with them, persuading them that we had to create a new value for pearl as a material. What I had learnt at [those western luxury goods companies] was that first you have to have all the necessary pieces in your hand. And Tasaki had the quality, the materials and the story behind it, just not the design. Once you have those pieces it’s all about how you arrange them. The other lesson was that rejuvenating a brand image doesn’t happen overnight. It takes four or five years, not the two or three that the private equity firm I worked with expected. That took a lot of talking with them too.”
Inevitably then, getting the design right really matters – not least, Tajima argues, because consumers think of fine jewellery as something they will be wearing for years, if not a lifetime, unlike the seasonal turnover of clothing styles. Likewise, while the selling period for fashion may be a matter of a few months, jewellery stays around in collections sometimes for years. The design has to have longevity implicitly built in.
One of the more unexpected decisions Tajima took was to look outside of the jewellery world for a creative lead in driving this repositioning for the brand. He had this idea that jewellery is typically presented somewhat in the abstract – in perfectly lit glass cases; fashion, in contrast, is displayed on rails precisely because makers and consumers alike understand it only comes alive when worn. Tajima wanted Tasaki pieces to be considered in the same way – more as part of a stylistic whole. He chewed this idea over with a dozen or more prospective candidates for Tasaki’s creative director role.
“But none of them got it,” he laments. “Yet fashion designers understand that right away, of course. And so I decided to work with them instead [first the Thai-American designer Thakoon Panichgul, latterly the Nepalese-American designer Prabal Gurung]. It’s unconventional but that’s where design value comes from. I think I took that approach at that time because I was also an outsider [to the jewellery industry]. In fact I think after so many years it becomes more difficult for me because I’m more of an insider now. That’s why we’re not just working with fashion designers either, but people, the likes of Melanie Georgacopoulos [of the sliced pearls idea], who trained originally as a sculptor. And the way they look at jewellery is quite different too. They’re more ready to push at the boundaries of jewellery design.”
One of Tasaki’s further strengths is that it has, since its inception, operated its own domestic oyster farm, near Nagasaki – indeed, the company was the first to farm brown-lipped pearl oysters. It acquired a further farm five years ago. That has historically allowed the brand to control production of Akoya pearls, the pinkish ones most closely associated with Japan, maintain supply of the best – valued for their size but also their shape, colour, nacre and lustre – and, with smaller, unwanted pearls, sell them on.
These days, however, the market is so constricted that Tasaki is now looking to expand supply through further acquisitions. The fact is that more and more oyster farms around Japan are shuttering. Most of them are family businesses, often employing arduous and ancient methodologies, requiring pristine waters, careful seeding and replanting in the seabed, with only 50% of oysters producing good pearls in a good year, and as low as 30% of them in a bad year. As Tasaki explains, oyster farming is hard, physical, year-round work and younger generations don’t want to do it. That has pushed pearl prices up by 50% each year for the last two years.
“To find a big company such as ours with its own oyster farms is quite rare now. But we have to work out how to increase the harvest ourselves – I think that’s our biggest coming challenge,” Tajima explains. At least, relative to gemstones and precious metals – given their bad press regarding conflict, workers’ rights and the environmental impact of mining – the sustainability story of pearls works in Tasaki’s favour. It’s one reason, he argues, why western fashion brands have been looking more to use pearls in their collections.
“By farming the pearl oyster you actually even help prevent the [so-called] ‘red tide’ [algae blooms toxic to marine organisms] because oysters eat the phytoplankton that causes it,” he said. “We think we can make the argument to consumers that, given how pearl is produced, actually it’s the most sustainable material used in jewellery now. That counts when younger generations especially are increasingly aware of the environmental impact of jewellery.”
Tajima isn’t such of the younger generation himself anymore, even if he has a sense of how he might reinvent pearls for them. Like Tasaki, he too will soon turn 70 – later this year, in fact. He says that in Japan when someone turns 70 people refer to them as ‘kouki’, which broadly translates as ‘rare’ – “because it’s quite rare for a human being to reach that age,” he laughs. “And in the same way it’s rare for companies, especially in jewellery and fashion, to be in business for 70 years too. That’s not easy. So we’re going to celebrate. We’re going to make some big noises.”
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Tasaki, 170 New Bond St, W1S 4RB, tasaki.co.uk