In a garden room at The Ritz during Couture Week in Paris, creative director Prabal Gurung’s latest Atelier fine jewelry collection for Tasaki sparkles in the sun. The house’s famous pearls take pride of place, set alongside deep blue turquoises interspersed with diamonds in the Radiant series; a necklace, ring and earrings inspired by the sky over Gurung’s home city of New York. Elsewhere, the Ore series further showcases the house’s gemstone mastery, with an astonishing fire opal, Akoya pearls and a rainbow of tourmalines on delicate diamond branches.
Tasaki has been producing elegant pearl and diamond jewelry since the 1950s. Best-known in the US and Europe for its pearls, the Japanese jewelry house is now looking beyond the pearl choker and over recent years it has produced increasingly modern-looking jewels with the help of Gurung, and collaborations with fellow fashion designer Thakoon and jeweler Melanie Georgacopoulos. And as Tasaki CEO Toshikazu Tajima tells me, they are “planning more collaborations with talented young designers in the future.”
It was also the first Japanese house to have its own pearl farm. They now have three, at which pearls are farmed ethically and sustainably, enabling the company to control the whole production process to exacting standards, and continue the traditions of craft pearl culturing. Mr Tajima explains how Tasaki upholds that heritage while looking towards the future.
How are you updating the notion of modern luxury for a new market?
Unlike diamonds and gold, there are not many product offerings around everyday pearls, so we started working with ready-to-wear designers used to designing garments. Seen from the outside, we are targeting a younger customer, but it’s more complex than that.
We want to invest in visibility with twenty-somethings as a potential market for the future. At the same time, we’re pearl producers and want our potential customers to be interested in them – in Japan, for example, pearls are still seen as being mainly for formal occasions. While that association is great, we believe they have more potential than that. If people buy a pearl necklace for special occasions, one is enough, so it’s the end of the story.
How important is it to produce Tasaki pearls end-to-end in-house?
I am not sure whether doing everything in-house is the most efficient way. Depending on the season, it’s sometimes better for the bottom line to buy pearls in. They grow to different sizes each year which means that it might sometimes be hard to find certain sizes on the market. Pearl shells eat phytoplankton however, so pearl farming helps avoid too much phytoplankton in the sea which causes the red tide phenomenon.
Not all oysters can produce pearls. Even in the best of years, only 50% can do so and in bad years, that goes down to 30-35%. We only use the best 10-15% of the pearls we produce; so that makes for a very small proportion. The rest can still be used for jewelry, but not for Tasaki brand, so we sell the surplus to other jewelry manufacturers.
Where do your surplus pearls end up?
We can supply designers who know what jewelry they will be making for next season; as long as we know in advance what they need, we can produce it.
Over the last four or five years it’s become increasingly difficult to find good quality smaller pearls, so we began producing 4.5 millimeter size pearls. One of our pearl farms in Japan now represents more than 80% of the small-sized pearls in Japan; without our own pearl farms, we would not able to consistently produce some of our best-known designs
The turquoise and pearls of the Radiant collection are such an original combination. As a fashion designer, what does Prabal Gurung bring to Tasaki?
My background is fashion. The biggest difference between jewelry and ready-to-wear is that jewelry looks best in a showcase, but ready-to-wear looks nothing until it’s worn.
I wanted to launch a jewelry line like that, so I pitched it to Prabal and he came up with the Radiant collection, inspired by the sky. From dawn to dusk, it looks different, and these also look different in different lights – the necklace is beautiful worn outside.
He’s the perfect designer to work with Tasaki. He’s innovative, he understands and can deliver what we really want. The Linkage collection came out of something he originally designed for the runway. It was big and bold, and we had him adapt it for a broader consumer base without changing the nuance, which is very difficult when changing pearl size.
Outside of Japan, Tasaki is best-known better known for pearls. Tell me a little more about Tasaki’s diamond expertise.
Tasaki became a De Beers Sightholder in 1994. Before we started polishing diamonds, the best diamond cutting grade was Very Good. The GIA added one more grade because they graded our diamonds as superior to Very Good, now 100% of the diamonds we polish are graded Excellent.
The Danger collection feels fresh and modern. Are these pearls for a new generation?
We are targeting a very wide range of consumers. But we are not targeting just by age, we are targeting by the age of mind. With the Balance ring, everybody thought we were going for younger clients but the first customers to purchase it were actually our existing 40-60 customers.
Tell me about Tasaki’s planned further expansion into Europe.
We are planning on opening new points of sale once we have brought our London store into the black, which was a huge investment. The UK market is accelerating, so we’re working on enhancing brand and product awareness with a couple of shop-in-shops in department stores. Our operations in Paris are now reaching breakeven point so once the British operation follows, we’ll be ready to enter the US market. I think this will take another three years; for steady growth, we want to be stable in one market before pushing into another.