Pearls have been a staple jewelry item for women for hundreds of years. Whether it is a classic graduated single strand necklace or a pair of pearl studs, women have admired the elegant simplicity that these gems offer. However, most people know nothing about them. Below are some of the most worthwhile facts about pearls, the official birthstone of June.
How are Pearls Formed?
Pearl is an organic material made by a living organism known as a mollusk.
A mollusk forms a pearl when it gets a small particle trapped inside its shell. In the case of cultured pearls, a tiny seed is implanted in the shell. As a protective measure, the mollusk then coats the particle with a material known as nacre.
Any mollusk that has a shell can also create a pearl, but pearls are usually formed by mollusks that have two shells.
Pearls can take anywhere from a few months to a few years to develop depending on the water conditions and the size and type of mollusk.
Natural pearls have been harvested from the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea for thousands of years.
Saltwater pearls are made by oysters whereas freshwater pearls are usually made by mussels.
The shell of the mollusk is what determines the coloring of a pearl. Colors range from white to gold to purple to black.
What are Cultured Pearls?
Virtually all pearls (about 95%) harvested today are cultured or cultivated pearls, meaning mollusks are artificially implanted with small seeds and tended to on a farm. It is very rare to find a pearl of a large size nowadays that forms naturally.
In the early 1900's, three Japanese men Kokichi Mikimoto, Tokichi Nishikawa and Tatsuhei Mise had all discovered a method to cultivating pearls. Eventually, Kokichi Mikimoto bought out the other two men and created 'Mikimoto' pearls that are still to this day a favorite brand of high-quality cultured saltwater Akoya pearls.
- The farming of pearls is also referred to as "periculture."
When pearls are harvested from mollusks, it is possible to re-implant the mollusk without killing it, allowing mollusk to make many pearls.
Pearl Symbolism and History
Pearl was named the official birthstone for June in 1912 by the American National Association of Jewelers.
Pearls have been known to symbolize fertility, loyalty, and friendship.
Pearls were used in mourning or memorial jewelry during the Georgian and Victorian eras and symbolized tears.
According to Egyptian legend, Cleopatra once took off one of her pearl earrings, dropped it into a glass of wine until it dissolved then drank it for Marc Anthony.
The earliest known piece of pearl jewelry was found in the sarcophagus of a Persian princess dating back to 520 BC.
Similar to how we think of snowflakes, no two pearls are alike.
Low-grade pearls have been crushed up into a fine shimmery translucent powder and used as a make-up.
Jacques Cartier traded a double stranded natural pearl necklace valued at $1.2 million for a mansion on 5th Avenue in NYC where he opened a Cartier store and headquarters in 1916.
La Peregrina is one of the most famous pearls ever found. It is pear shaped and the size of a pigeon's egg. It was discovered in the Americas and has been owned by Philip II of Spain, Mary Tudor of England and Napoleon III. In recent years, the famous pearl was given to Elizabeth Taylor by Richard Burton.
Learn more with our Beginner's Guide to Pearls.