When you hear the words “father of the cultured pearl industry”, you’d think of Kokichi Mikimoto. And rightly so. He created the first cultured pearl and made it fashionable for women all over the world to buy and wear cultured pearls.
However, there’s another name you may not have heard of before, but you should. The story of Mugen He starts in 1972 when he was 38 years old, about 50 years after the first round cultured pearls were introduced to the market by Mikimoto.
This is a story about a pioneer. And it’s also a story about changing lives.
On December 27, 1972, Mugen He, an ordinary farmer from Changle Village in Zhuji County, Zhejiang Province, walked into Zhejiang Pharmaceutical Company with a bag in his hand. The counter clerk who took the bag had no idea how the contents of that little bag were going to change a whole industry and bring prosperity to the county.
Inside the bag was a pearl weighing 1.2 pounds. The appraisers have set the value on 497 yuan (about $75), and suddenly, Mugen He was a rich man. In 1972, 497 yuan could buy you ten pigs, or two old-fashioned houses in the village.
The people of Changle Village were mainly farmers. Farmers who thought Mugen He was mad for trying to farm with pearls and thinking he would become rich from it. But soon, he was regarded as a great god of wealth in the production brigade and in the commune (a farming system that was disbanded in the early 1980s).
Instead of keeping the secret of how to cultivate pearls to himself, he decided to share his knowledge with the whole village. The village was poor and many people could barely clothe themselves and were constantly wondering where the next meal was coming from. But all that changed because Mr. He – with the support of the village and town government – taught the more than 300 households how to raise pearls through open training sessions, and under his guidance, they dug the fields to create lakes in which to grow the pearls.
Countless villagers turned into businessmen, and they all grew rich together.
Compared to Mikimoto, Mugen He was extremely generous. He shared all his experience and secrets about pearl culturing technology with the villagers and helped them to culture their own pearls.
Japanese pearl farmers have to pay a steep entry fee if they want to produce pearls, because Kokichi Mikimoto registered a patent-based intellectual property protection, the “Mikimoto Cultured Pearl Law” to keep his secrets safe.
Unlike Mikimoto, Mr. He believed stronger in helping his neighbors than in being rich. This unselfishness is why China is now the largest producer of freshwater pearls.
It started with Mugen He and his small village, and today, 95% of the world’s freshwater pearls are cultivated in China.
By all accounts, Mugen He was an arrogant man. But he was a pioneer and a visionary who changed the lives of an entire village, which eventually changed an entire industry.
He is still a well-respected figure in the town of Changle today, and he will always be remembered as the father of the Chinese pearl industry.