Maki-e, Changing our Perception of Beauty, One Pearl at a Time

by Reema Farooqui

A Conversation with Raphael Basalely Vice President at Eliko Pearl Co. about the Appeal of Maki-e Pearls

For many pearl purists, any embellishment to beautiful pearls may seem superfluous. Pearls are already perfect, they say, so there’s no need to add anything more to them. With Maki-e Pearls, I argue, that is not the case. Tahitian pearls artfully decorated with 24K gold powder and abalone shell mosaic are nothing if not exquisite.

Maki-e pearls are a relatively new addition to the world of pearls, but the Maki-e technique is hundreds of years old. Maki-e are two Japanese words which mean sprinkle (maki) picture (e) and that more or less explains the concept. This is because the technique involves using a very fine brush to paint an image on a lacquered surface, then finishing the design by sprinkling metallic powder, usually gold, platinum or silver, through a special bamboo tube, to add another layer of beauty. Additional ornamentation, such as raden where inlays of Abalone shells or Mother-of-Pearl, can also be added to the lacquer work, to create a shimmering and multi-textured masterpiece.

This exceptional technique is now being used to decorate Tahitian pearls. As a result we see the creation of tiny but absolutely perfect works of art. The round or drop-shaped Tahitian pearls are decorated with 24K yellow gold powder and tiny abalone shell tiles to form unbelievably detailed and fine designs on the surface of the pearls. These designs can be anything from a floral motif, an abstract or geometric rendering or something as endearing as koi fish swimming away. Fascinating doesn’t come close to describing the wonder one feels on looking at these gorgeous gems, especially since the canvas is a pearl.

I recently caught up with Raphael Basalely, Vice President of Eliko Pearl Co., the sole suppliers of Maki-e pearls in the U.S. I was very curious about Maki-e pearls and asked Raphael a host of questions about the pearls as well as why they are fast gaining popularity among pearl jewellery lovers.

I believe Eliko Pearl Co. first started offering Maki-e pearls in 2017. What drew you to them and what makes Maki-e pearls special?

We acquired our first maki-e pearls in 2017. We have always been attracted to the unusual and different when it comes to pearls and these fit that description perfectly. The combination of the wide array of colors that exist within Tahitian pearls from silver to jet black with greens and purples and blues in between combined with the green/blue/purple of abalone shell and the 24k gold paint caught our eye right away. There have been many takes on the classic pearl over the last 10 years or so (carved, faceted, inlaid with gemstones etc.) but we feel Maki-e is the most beautiful and complementary to the pearl of all.

The Maki-e technique was developed in Japan in the Edo period, most probably in the 1600s or so, but applying this technique to pearls is fairly recent. Do you know when these pearls started being crafted and are they only crafted in Japan?

These pearls are actually crafted in the Philippines. All of the pearls are of the Tahitian variety from French Polynesian pearl farms but the labor of decorating them with 24k paint and abalone shell inlay is done in the Philippines. The technique is Japanese as you mentioned and many of the styles are Japanese inspired but the labor itself is not done in Japan.

Would you happen to know how long it takes to finish one Maki-e pearl? Is each pearl finished by one artist or are there specializations within the craft as well, like abalone shell mosaic inlay, 24 K gold paint and lacquer etc.?

There are currently 4 artisans in the world practicing the Maki-e technique on pearls. As one can imagine, this is very labor and time intensive and a very specific skill set is required. On average, about 100 pearls are produced a month, so they are very, very limited in quantity.

How many different styles of maki-e pearls are currently available?

We currently offer about 30 different styles of Maki-e pearls. Other styles can be special ordered however since they are labor and time sensitive, production is about 1-3 months.

Are Maki-e pearls only being crafted using Tahitian pearls or have some artists tried to craft some with gold or white South Sea pearls as well?

Currently, Maki-e is only being applied to Tahitian pearls. Part of the reason for this is the great contrast between the colors of the Tahitian pearl and the materials being applied to it.

What is the one most unforgettable Maki-e pearl you have seen and why did it leave such an impression on you?

Some of the most beautiful Maki-e pearls in my opinion are large baroque pearls with elaborate abalone and gold patterns, specifically on a silver or peacock colored pearl. The mix of colors jump out like a shining star.

What special care instructions do you have for someone owning a piece of jewellery with Maki-e pearls?

As with any other pearl, no harsh chemicals or makeup should be applied when wearing one’s Maki-e pearl jewelry. Once other important thing to note is not to bring the maki-e pearl into contact with any strong adhesives. Although the pearls are very durable one must treat them with care and be careful not to damage the decorated part of the pearl.

If someone wants to buy Maki-e pearls from Eliko Pearl Co., what is the best way to do this?

Eliko Pearl Co. is the exclusive distributor of Maki-e pearls in the United States. One can reach out to us directly by e-mail or via Instagram to view our inventory and for any further information.

Thank you so much Raphael for taking out the time to answer my questions. I really appreciate it.

You can find out more about Maki-e Pearls by visiting Eliko Pearl Co. at www.elikopearl.com or by following them on Instagram at @elikopearlco

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