From one of the humblest of life forms, the mollusc, comes the pearl – a gem of supreme beauty and elegance and the birthstone for June along with Moonstone. Unlike most gemstones that are found within the Earth, pearls have an organic origin. They are created inside the shells of certain species of oysters and clams. Some pearls are found naturally in molluscs that inhabit the sea or freshwater settings such as rivers. However, many pearls today are cultured-raised in oyster farms. A pearl is created when a very small fragment of rock, a sand grain, or a parasite enters the mollusc’s shell. It irritates the oyster or clam, who responds by coating the foreign material with layer upon layer of shell material.
Historically, pearls have been used as an adornment for centuries. They were one of the favourite gems of the Roman Empire. Later in Tudor England, the 1500s were known as the pearl age. Pearls are unique as they are the only gems from living sea creatures and require no faceting or polishing to reveal their natural beauty. In the early 1900s, the first successful commercial culturing of round saltwater pearls began. Since the 1920s, cultured pearls have almost completely replaced natural pearls in the market.
Pearls possess a uniquely delicate translucence and lustre that place them among the most highly valued of gemstones. The colour of the pearl depends very much on the species of mollusc that produced it, and its environment. White is perhaps the best known and most common colour but they also come in delicate shades of black, cream, grey, blue, yellow, lavender, green, and mauve. Black pearls can be found in the Gulf of Mexico and waters off some islands in the Pacific Ocean. The Persian Gulf and Sri Lanka are well known for exquisite cream-coloured pearls called Orientals. The value of Pearls depends on whether it is natural or cultured; its size, shape, colour and lustre. Pearls that have an even texture and are free of flaws on the surface are preferred.
The largest pearl in the world is believed to be about three inches long and two inches across, weighing one-third of a pound. Called the Pearl of Asia, it was a gift from Shah Jahan of India to his favourite wife, Mumtaz, for whom he also built the Taj Mahal.
La Peregrina (the Wanderer) is considered by many experts to be the most beautiful pearl. It was said to be originally found by a slave in Panama in the 1500s, who gave it up in return for his freedom. In 1570, the conquistador ruler of the area sent the pearl to King Philip II of Spain. This pear-shaped white pearl, one and a half inches in length, hangs from a platinum mount studded with diamonds. The pearl was passed to Mary I of England, then to Prince Louis Napoleon of France. He sold it to the British Marquis of Abercorn, whose family kept the pearl until 1969, when they offered it for sale at Sotheby’s. Actor Richard Burton bought it for his wife, Elizabeth Taylor.
Pearls, according to South Asian mythology, were dewdrops from heaven that fell into the sea. They were caught by shellfish under the first rays of the rising sun, during a period of full moon. The Ancient Chinese thought that these gems originated from the brains of dragons. In ancient Greece, pearls were thought to be formed when the tears of joy that fell from the eyes of goddess Aphrodite hardened. In India, warriors encrusted their swords with pearls to symbolize the tears and sorrow that a sword brings. Pearls have also been used as medicine as early as 2000 BC in China, where they were believed to represent wealth, power and longevity. The June birthstone was widely used to prepare medicines in Europe and Persia and was believed to be a cure for insanity. Even to this day, lowest grade pearls are ground for use as medicine in Asia.
Pearls have been known for their healing properties for centuries, particularly in traditional Asian medical systems. Pearls are said to give the wearer a sense of calmness and centeredness, and to promote faith, loyalty, truth and purity. They can especially enhance personal integrity. They have been ground up and used in cosmetics and as a medicine to treat heart and stomach conditions. Some cultures swear by pearls as an aphrodisiac.
They continue to be viewed as a mark of taste and refinement as well as a symbol of purity, and they are often given to celebrate a marriage or the birth of a child. Pearls are nature’s perfect gift, suitable for all ages, and elegantly worn with everything from jeans to an evening dress.