From Kobe to Capri…A Profile of Dorotea Liguori

Dorotea Liguori remembers the unusual “baptism” over 50 years ago of her first child, a son, born in Naples, Italy. A mountain of pearl strands rested on a table in her father’s office. “My father took the baby, undressed him completely, and placed him in the middle of the pearls,” she says.

In what looked like a tribal ritual, she recalls, Gennaro Liguori commanded the baby in Neapolitan dialect, “Grow, grow!”—with the passion of a man who wanted his first grandchild to grow up in love and obsessed with pearls. Perfectly reasonable from this man, a coral trader, who in 1919 became the first Westerner to export the legendary Mikimoto cultured pearls to Europe.

Fast-forward to the present. Today, at the age of 81, Dorotea Liguori perpetuates her father’s passion. She designs a line of jewelry, called simply, DL, a business she started seven years ago. For the previous 20 years she had been designing her own personal collection. DL includes opulent pieces fashioned from pearls and diamonds and various combinations of gold, coral, rubies, topaz, jade, amethyst, turquoise, onyx, and amber. Working from an office in her Naples home—a 30,000-square-foot villa (with 15 bedrooms and 10 bathrooms) that overlooks Mount Vesuvius and the Tyrrhenian Sea—she chooses pencil or pen to draw each design on paper. She then describes these designs to craftsmen, also based in Naples, who make each piece by hand under Liguori’s supervision. “Nothing is made by machine,” she states firmly, adding that 1,000 pieces are crafted each year—and “each one is different.”

She describes her jewelry, mostly necklaces and earrings created from coral and colored gemstones, as “sporty.” Prices range from $1,000 to $7,000. Currently, however, she’s concentrating on precious stones, with designs that start at $5,000 and climb to $400,000.

She travels extensively to purchase gems in India, China, Hong Kong, and the United States, selling largely to private collectors internationally as well as to customers visiting her retail shop on the island of Capri. (In Capri, Liguori owns a summer villa overlooking the Bay of Naples, with an oriental garden—a residence that once belonged to German chancellor Bismarck.) Although she’ll admit that her father’s pearls were bought by such luminaries as Marilyn Monroe and Barbara Hutton, Liguori prefers to withhold the names of her own customers, acknowledging only that they include well-known socialites and celebrities.

Her many accomplishments amaze those who know this petite woman—her upbringing and breeding would hardly be expected to inspire a female to embrace business or entrepreneurship. Quite the contrary. The daughter of parents who never married—a graceful yet simple Japanese country woman and a bold and innovative coral trader from Italy— Liguori was born in Kobe, Japan, inheriting two very distinct cultures, with traditions from the East and West that anchored women firmly in the home.

Her father, Gennaro, had moved at age 17 to Japan from Italy with his own father, a coral merchant. When Liguori was born in 1925, her grandfather had returned to his home in Torre del Greco, a town near Naples, leaving his son Gennaro in charge of the business. “That explains all the coral in the house,” she says, remembering fragments spilling out from sacks as they were carried to her father’s office. Yaeko, Liguori’s Japanese name, which means “wild cherry,” used to play with the shiny little pieces of coral that she found on the floor and in the garden and even scattered under plants. “I would put them in my mouth,” she says. “I must have swallowed a few.”

In a candid and poignant autobiography, Yaeko/Wild Cherry, a Eurasian Odyssey, Liguori recounts the pain of a little girl of mixed blood growing up in Japan with parents who didn’t live together and with the awareness that she looked “different.” At school, she recalls, “I was the only child whose color was so ambivalent.” Walking home from class one day, hand in hand with her mother, she writes, two children taunted her: “Ainoko! Ainoko!” That means Eurasian or mixed blood, as well as illegitimate child, she explains. And she would overhear people talking: “No one will want to marry her.”

Her happier memories are of her father, who, she writes, became a close friend of “a small, thin Japanese magician, with a pointed beard and penetrating eyes.” This former pearl diver from Ise had perfected a technique for cultivating cultured pearls. The Chinese, Liguori explains, had experimented with them 300 years earlier. “But they didn’t succeed, whereas Mikimoto did.” Indeed, she calls Mikimoto “a pioneer of genetic engineering.” His method involved inserting into the oyster a fragment of mother-of-pearl instead of the bit of stone or grain of sand that becomes embedded naturally, she writes in her autobiography. The oyster envelops the mother-of-pearl with secretions. And a pearl is born. Before then, only natural, spontaneously created pearls were traded, to travel and eventually nestle in the crowns of kings and queens and in the elaborate jewel cases of maharajas and odalisques.

“My father immediately grasped the significance of Mikimoto’s discovery,” Liguori says. The cultured pearl became an instant hit, boosting the gem trade and creating new international markets. “It was,” she elaborates, “the great protagonist of the Fabulous Twenties.” And Gennaro Liguori became the first trader to choose pearls from Mikimoto’s pearl beds. His selections entered the American market and “journeyed along complicated routes to jewelers in Paris and London—and to unknown pearl stringers in Torre del Greco, headquarters of the Liguori Company.”

Pearls were living things for her father, Liguori says in her book. “He often talked to them and called them by name. You must stare at them, always, continually, he would say, as if they were beautiful women … and devour the pearls with your eyes.”

In 1946, her father brought her from Japan to live in his hometown of Torre del Greco, where a large house; new customs; and assorted aunts, uncles, and cousins chattering in a foreign language at first overwhelmed her.

What’s more, she was expected to become “the perfect mistress of the house,” which, according to her father, meant giving orders to the maids, controlling the shopping, and balancing the household accounts.

This house was where Liguori employees, young and old, came to string pearls in the huge dining room. A large table sat up to 10 stringers, each with her own working space and wearing a white coat. They didn’t work like the Japanese, who strung according to size or roundness, but strung according to the principle of color selection, Liguori explains. Some Japanese books, she says, call it the “Liguori technique.” No industrial equipment was necessary.

Soon Liguori was working along with the stringers, hearing their gossip and absorbing their craft, which was, she says, “unsurpassable.”

In 1948, when she was 22, she attended an exclusive school in Florence, and an art collector and attorney, who also worked for Salvatore Ferragamo, became her tutor. The Ferragamo family invited her to dine in their home and accompany them on “beautiful excursions,” she recalls. Now she was meeting a “certain Italian society” while seeing great art and architecture, which she hadn’t experienced in southern Italy, where her own family “was itself tradition, myth, legend, and history,” she says.

She remembers her awe and admiration as she walked the streets of Florence. Yet she felt like an outsider—“until I studied the Medici family. I breathed a sigh of relief,” she says, when she learned they were bankers, making their fortune in commerce and finance. “One of them had been a queen,” she recalls with delight. “Whatever happened, I was destined for business.”

Although she married a man of similar background and pedigree, the couple were not compatible. After her father’s death, her husband assumed the reins of Liguori Co. “Your husband is a gentleman, too much of a rich man’s son,” the Japanese traders warned her. “He isn’t suited for the business world.”

Liguori, however, was. After her divorce in 1972, she assumed control of her father’s pearl and coral business, while extending her own real estate interests. (She built the Sakura hotel in Torre del Greco, apartments in Japan, and a shopping center and office building in Scottsdale, Ariz.) In 2000, Dorotea Liguori was voted one of the 40 best female managers in the world.