Pearls: their lore and history
While many of us love pearls, many do not know about pearls and their lore and history. This blog will help expand your knowledge of this beautiful, organic stone.
PEARL BIRTHSTONE MEANING & HISTORY. This enchanting June birthstone originates from oceans, lakes and rivers around the world. It is a timeless wardrobe staple, beloved by women of all ages. The origin of pearls fascinated our forebears. Ancients from the Middle East believed that pearls were teardrops fallen from heaven. The Chinese fancied that the June birthstone came from the brain of a dragon. Christopher Columbus and his contemporaries thought that mollusks formed pearls from dew drops.
Pearls are organic gems that grow inside the tissue of a living saltwater or freshwater mollusk (either an oyster or a mussel). Natural pearls form when the mollusk secretes a substance called nacre around an irritant such as a piece of sand or a parasite that has invaded its shell. Cultured pearls are a product of human intervention. Technicians implant a piece of mantle tissue alone (common for freshwater cultured pearls) or with a mother-of-pearl shell bead (all saltwater) into a host mollusk. The mollusk covers the irritant with nacre, just like a natural pearl. Cultured pearls are raised in pearl farms – saltwater or freshwater operations where the mollusks are cleaned, protected from predators and eventually harvested. Thousands of years of pearl fishing have decimated the natural pearl beds, so cultured pearls account for the vast majority of pearl sales today. These cultured pearl birthstones come in a dazzling array of sizes, colors and shapes.
The lore of pearls
Along with pearls’ history there is the lore. Pearls have long been associated with purity, humility and innocence. So it may be said that the June birthstone meaning is “sweet simplicity.” As such, pearls were traditionally given as a wedding gift.
The pearl birthstone was also thought to have beneficial properties. In the ancient Sanskrit text the Atharvaveda, pearls were said to bestow long life and prosperity. In Asia, pearls were believed to help alleviate indigestion and hemorrhages. Some 19th century Arab physicians maintained that pearl powder improved eyesight, quieted nervous tremors and eased depression.
One of the most famous natural pearls is the 50.56 carat (ct) La Peregrina. About the size of a pigeon’s egg, the drop shaped pearl was discovered in the 1500s in the Gulf of Panama. It became a prized possession of European royalty. Richard Burton eventually gifted it to Elizabeth Taylor in 1969; Christie’s New York auctioned the Cartier necklace containing La Peregrina for $11.8 million in 2011.
Warm waters… clear skies… dramatic scenery – it sounds like a dream beach vacation, don’t you think? It’s also an accurate description of where you’ll often find these pearl birthstones. Pearl-bearing mollusks fail to thrive in polluted waters, so pearl farms are usually located far from civilization – and often in breathtaking settings.
Saltwater cultured pearls are grown in many areas around the world. Akoya cultured pearl farms are primarily found in Japan and China, especially along the southern coasts of Guangdong and Guangxi provinces. South Sea cultured pearls are farmed from the northern coast of Australia through Indonesia to the southern coast of Southeast Asia, with large operations in the Philippines as well. The Gambier Islands and the Tuamotu Archipelago, both part of French Polynesia, are two locales where the rich black Tahitian pearls are cultured. China is the dominant source of freshwater cultured pearls.
Natural pearls have been found in the Arabian Gulf (Persian Gulf) for at least 5,000 years, while divers have been recovering the June birthstone from the Red Sea since 300 BCE. The Strait of Mannar has been providing pearls since 2000 BCE. Starting in the 16th century, during Spanish colonial rule, large quantities of pearls were recovered from the waters off Mexico, Central America and what is now Venezuela. Only small quantities of pearls are found in any of these areas today.
PEARL BIRTHSTONE CARE & CLEANING
Pearls are 2.5 to 3.0 on the Mohs Scale of hardness, so they are a comparatively soft gem and require special care. Store them separately from other gemstones and metal jewelry to prevent scratching. Never store your pearl birthstones in a plastic bag — plastic can emit a chemical that will damage their surface. Always apply perfume, hair products and cosmetics before putting on your pearl jewelry. The best way to clean your June birthstone: Use a soft, damp cloth, ideally after each time the pearls are worn.