Maiko Makito, Co-owner and Managing Director of Pearl FALCO takes us through the craft and beauty of treasured Japanese Akoya Pearls, born in the naturally crystal-clear waters of Ise Shima.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Maiko Makito: I think the greatest sentiment of all is the knowledge that my family and I are safe and healthy. COVID19 was taxing, but we feel very fortunate to tide the crisis over in our home in a country like Singapore that was quick to incorporate successful safety measures. Beyond the borders, however, as someone who used to commute every month between Singapore and Japan, the initial stages of global lockdown was challenging as it gave rise to doubts about the safety of my family and my team. COVID-19 had taken the world by storm, and it was stressful and overwhelming to strike a balance in the new normal, even for my children, who were then 10 and 12.
What still worries us is that the crisis is far from over in Japan. My company is based in Ise Shima, which is home to Japan’s most sacred Shinto shrines and the origin of pearl farming attracts many local tourists with its sheer beauty. Unfortunately, international tourism is relatively low in Ise Shima even though tourist traffic into Japan is high. Local tourism was booming for a whole year before COVID-19 made its presence felt, almost crippling our business. Although the number of cases is generally stabilized, my teams in Japan are still finding it difficult to cope on certain days.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Pearl FALCO.
Maiko Makito: Prior to Pearl FALCO, I joined NEC after my graduation with the opportunity to explore working in developing countries and build upon my self-reliance. In NEC, I undertook projects to build up communication infrastructures in Asia. Since I was young, I have always harboured dreams to contribute to the community to which I can help through different contributions. After resigning from NEC, my passion for contributing to society lived on, and I initiated programs like “Pearl of Hope” that helps underserved children gain access to education.
In 2016, I resigned from my corporate job and took over the reins of Pearl FALCO from my father at a time when I was also simultaneously building a family and adapting to motherhood here in Singapore. I was motivated by my passion for my culture and the beauty of pearls that I wished to share with the world.
Shortly after, in 2018, after multiple roadshows and a sustained awe of the brilliance of pearls, I conceptualized an annual Pearl Jewellery competition, “The Grand Prix of Akoya Pearl Jewellery Ise Shima”. This is an annual affair with hopes to raise awareness of the importance and versatility of pearls by focusing on themes that bind. Here in Singapore, I have also organized Pearl Appreciation Workshops in jewellery schools like NAFA, Raffles Design and JDMIS and also hosted private seminars both online and in person.
How does Pearl FALCO innovate?
Maiko Makito: I have to thank my team of like-minded individuals who are as passionate about Japanese culture and appreciate the art of pearl cultivation. Pearls are not as widely renowned as other gemstones like diamonds, so there is a relatively smaller number of people who appreciate pearls. We constantly draw inspiration from the ties that bind us together, just like an intricately strewn pearl necklace. Pearl FALCO has carved its niche by anchoring to classic designs and adapting modern elements to make our pieces suitable as heirlooms to be passed down to future generations.
We are currently working on a slew of projects, including The Pearl of Hope Challenge and The Grand Prix of Akoya Pearl Jewellery Ise Shima, where we bring Ise Shima to the world through various jewellery pieces made of carefully curated pearls. Every year, we have multiple entries from around the world from people who also wish to showcase their penchant for jewellery design. We’re truly humbled by the participation and draw inspiration from the different perspectives presented to us through jewellery design.
Moving forward, we are also eyeing expansion into our third market, with Singapore as Pearl FALCO’s market-side base for our global sales and marketing leadership team. It would be a matter of great pride when we are able to share the story and beauty of treasured Japanese Akoya Pearls to the rest of the world and establish Pearl FALCO’s presence as the pioneer in the cultivation, processing, and designing of cultured pearl jewellery.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Maiko Makito: As a modest, traditional family business in the Japanese countryside, we already had the odds stacked against us due to the Japanese economic situation coupled with a declining population. When COVID19 came along, the mountain of challenges grew higher. That meant that Ise Shima did not see many local tourists as it once used to, negatively impacting the influx of customers who appreciated unique handmade luxury pearl jewellery. My basis for taking over the family business in the first place was; innovation. I had strong feelings towards the need to be agile and expand outside of Ise Shima if we were to survive.
Just when things began to look up, COVID-19 spread like wildfire, and we were faced with circuit breaker measures along with the constant agony that if the spending power of the locals in Singapore and even tourists reduced, our company would not be able to stay afloat. In its initial stages, it was a herculean task to channel positivity towards remembering my mission to share the appreciation of pearls. We needed to make a few challenging situations as a company, but we overcame them through solidarity.
I have to carry on my mission to share the real value of pearls. Together we can overcome difficulties, make this business self-sustaining and continue to serve our customers for years to come.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Maiko Makito: As we were seeking expansion into a new market due to a dwindling customer base in Japan itself, making difficult decisions relating to my team in Singapore was not an option. However, it is unfortunate that my team in Ise Shima was restructured due to several factors, and budget cuts resulted in decreasing the number of members in my team and repurposing staff with greater responsibilities without higher remuneration.
Thankfully, I worked alongside other passionate individuals who understood that our mission was to bring forward our Japanese tradition and the beauty of the pearl industry. The treasure of Japan, Akoya Pearls, is one that we wish to share with future generations. The pursuit of this mission requires me to work twice as hard with half the people here in Singapore as time awaits no one, and it is my dream to establish a new market for pearls here in Singapore.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Maiko Makito: While we initially adopted a more hands-on, interactive approach with our customers who we would host in our Pearl FALCO gallery here in Singapore, COVID-19 required us to shift this online. Our website was launched last year, and based on customer feedback, we are constantly revamping the accessibility of the page. We have a virtual personal assistant for online shopping, and clients can even book gallery viewings to come to view the pieces in person and learn about the rich history of pearls.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Maiko Makito: I am grateful to be the recipient of several Japanese grants that have allowed me to keep my staff employed in Japan while I sought to establish overseas markets in Asia.
As innovation is widely appreciated and supported in Singapore, I am planning to apply for digital marketing grants for a more fortified online presence.
Your final thoughts?
Maiko Makito: Since its conception, Pearl FALCO has prided itself as the leader in creating pearl jewelry pieces with the utmost love and attention to detail so it can be passed onto future generations. It is our vision to pass our knowledge of pearls, with the many stories and people’s love and devotion behind each piece of pearl jewelry, to the rest of the world.