Alexis opened her eyes slightly, making slits against the morning sunlight streaming in through the double door leading to the garden. Then she shut them again. She was in that delicious place between consciousness and sleep, when you’re standing with one foot in a dream and another in reality. If she woke up now, she knew her 21st birthday would be over. And she was still enjoying the memory of yesterday’s excursion to the Mikimoto pearl island and her grandma’s special letter …
My dearest Alexis,
You are an adult today. Old enough to understand the story of Eimi, your Japanese ancestor.
Wei, her grandmother, settled in Japan after her great silkworm smuggling adventure. She found a job in the marketplace where Akira worked, the trader for whom she smuggled the eggs. There she met Mitsuki, a vibrant young woman just a few years older and who was to become Wei’s greatest friend and teacher. Mitsuki would lead Wei and her daughter Kanako, as well as Eimi, to an even closer connection to pearls.
Mitsuki was one of the Ama, Japan’s famous female pearl divers. She recognised in Wei an unusual perseverance and determination and knew that Wei was struggling to survive on the tiny wages she made in the marketplace. So Mitsuki taught her the way of the Ama. By the time Kanako was born, Wei could hold her breath for minutes and she could dive very deep to harvest seaweed, abalone, shellfish and… pearls.
Eimi grew up in the marketplace where her mother, Kanako, had a stall selling the goods that she and Wei took turns to bring back from the ocean every day. Eimi’s biggest dream was to be a pearl diver like her mother and grandmother, but Kanako would not allow it. She had seen too many diving accidents. Instead, Eimi’s job was to take pearls to the nobility to sell for a good price. Pearls were rarely found – sometimes they went for a year or two without finding a pearl – so when Wei or Kanako found one, it had to sell for a good price.
Just before Eimi turned 16, a pearl deal went wrong. She set out for the house of a wealthy farmer with an especially precious pearl. Later that day her mother and grandmother received a ransom note.
The note demanded more pearls of this type in return for Eimi’s freedom and safety. Kanako was distraught, but Wei got angry. She was not going to allow someone else’s greed to destroy their livelihood or the life of her only granddaughter. Instead, she decided to use his greed against him, offering the only thing of value that she had: the heirloom pearl necklace.
On the day of the exchange, the other Ama women stayed away from the ocean and hid in the forest bordering the farm. As Wei made the exchange, the Ama entered the farm and overpowered the staff by threatening them with the razor-sharp spears they used when diving. The staff led them to Eimi, who was luckily unharmed.
In the confusion, Wei saved the necklace. That night, when Eimi was safe at home, Kanako sat next to her bed and handed her the pearl necklace.
“I now know that I can’t keep you from harm, so from tomorrow, you will train with the other Ama. Let these pearls remind you: adversity makes us strong. Just as the grain of sand in the shell becomes a pearl, so we must use our challenges to make something better.”
Eimi listened. She trained under Mitsuki and her grandmother until she could dive deeper than even Mitsuki, holding her breath for minutes. She treasured her pearl necklace until the day came for her to pass it on.
Do you have an heirloom pearl necklace that you can pass on to your daughter or granddaughter to remind them that the challenges in life makes them stronger? Visit our shop to start your own heirloom pearl tradition.