A Frenchwoman who was fascinated by the shine of Japanese pearl works has come here all alone to master the skill from an artisan.

Aiko Coutoleau, 36, began her apprenticeship last September at the studio of Sakai Kogeisha in Shima, Mie Prefecture. Using seashells from pearl oysters, silver-lipped pearl oysters and abalone that produce mother-of-pearl inside their shells, the studio produces various items, including fake fingernails, by processing the iridescent material.

Born and raised in France to a French father and Japanese mother, Coutoleau has been receiving training from Kazuhisa Sakai, 54.

“I have loved beautiful seashells since I was a child,” she said. She used to work at a law firm, but decided to change her career to work on the seashell works she had dreamed of. However, since there were few of pearl artisans in France, she looked for places to train in Japan and finally reached the home page of Sakai Kogeisha. Her mother helped her place the call.

The call surprised Sakai, who never expected the first request for an apprentice in his 35-year career would come from overseas.

He said the first question that came to mind was: “Can she really do this work?”

In an e-mail message, Sakai explained that his work was not easy and that she would be dusted from head to toe by cutting scrap and would have to overcome the cultural differences as well.

But his words didn’t faze her. In fact, she showed even stronger enthusiasm, asking him about the names of his tools. Sakai said he was deeply touched by her passion and felt “she was really serious about her desire.”

Coutoleau is living in Sakai’s house while she trains. At the beginning, she found grinding seashells difficult. But by observing the master, she’s honed her skills enough to scrape off as little as 0.5 mm of the nacreous material. “She is making an effort and she has a good sense,” Sakai said.

At the moment, Coutoleau is working on chopsticks studded with thinly sliced and crushed portions of mother-of-pearl, and accessories modeled after the so-called Dohman Sehman, a charm believed to ward off evil spirits that is usually worn by female divers. “I feel happy when I’m finished with these works,” she said.

Coutoleau’s training will continue for about three years. In the future, she wants to master “raden,” a skill used to set pieces of mother-of-pearl into curved surfaces, such as those found on the “biwa,” or Japanese lute.

This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by local daily Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Jan. 14.

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