June's Birthstone, the Pearl, has an amazing history, and remains one of the most timeless and popular stones to use in jewelry to this day. Read on to learn more and shop!
Revered throughout history as tears from the heavens, pearls have captivated the world from Cleopatra to Queen Elizabeth. Traditionally associated with purity and wisdom, pearls were the ultimate emblem of European royalty. One of the world's most famous pearls, an enormous (50.56 carat), natural pearl affectionately named “La Peregrina,” was part of the Spanish Crown Jewel Collection for centuries. Pearls were all the more rare in those days, as only a small fraction of mollusks produced pearls, an even smaller percentage of which were viable for jewelry. A large, pear-shaped pearl like the famed Peregrina was truly one of a kind for its time. La Peregrina was most recently sold as a Cartier necklace in 2011 for a total of $11.8 million, as seen below.
At the end of the 19th century, Japanese entrepreneur Mikimoto Kokichi started the cultured pearl industry with his creation and patent of the first cultured pearl and the establishment of his luxury pearl company, Mikimoto. Today, natural and cultivated pearls can be found in waters of China, Japan, Australia, the Philippines, and French Polynesia.
Elizabeth Burton's Cartier necklace designed for La Peregrina, made of natural and cultured pearls, diamonds, and rubies.
Composition and Color
A natural pearl is formed when an irritant gets inside some species of oyster, mussel or clam. The mollusk coats the irritant in protective layers upon layers of nacre (calcium carbonate) to defend itself, until gradually a pearl is formed! Natural pearls are very rare and thus expensive, and most pearls that we see used in jewelry today are cultivated (also called farmed pearls). These types of pearls come in all shapes and sizes, including white, pink, silver, cream, brown, green, blue, black, yellow, orange, red, gold, purple, and iridescent.
Caring for Pearl Jewelry
Pearls are some of the most delicate components of fine jewelry. Just 2.5 to 3.0 on the Mohs Scale of Hardness, they are very soft gems and need delicate care. Never store your pearl jewelry with other stones or metals as these can scratch your pearls. You should not store pearls in plastic as it can degrade the natural surface of the pearl over time. You should not apply perfume or other beauty products while wearing pearls, as any chemicals can damage the delicate surface. Take care to never expose your pearl jewelry to heat or acid, as acidic substances like vinegar will literally dissolve them. To clean these delicate stones, you can wipe them with a soft, damp cloth, such as microfiber or a washcloth.
Something about this organic gemstone inspired all the world's major religions. Pearls are mentioned in Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian texts dating back millennia. The Ancient Greeks believed pearls to be the hardened tears of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, while South Asian mythology similarly purported pearls to be dewdrops fallen from the heavens. Believed to symbolize innocence and modesty, wearing white pearls on one's wedding day is a tradition for brides all over the world. These ancient gemstones have been revered across the planet; in 2012, scientists working in the United Arab Emirates discovered a pearl believed to have been formed 7,500 years ago (around 5547 to 5235 BCE) making it the oldest pearl ever found.
Cleopatra famously used an enormous pearl to win a bet against her Roman lover Marc Antony. As a show of power, the renown queen of Egypt bet Marc Antony that she could spend a small fortune on just a single meal. According to Roman philosopher and naturalist Pliny the Elder's Natural History, “She ordered the second course to be served. In accordance with previous instructions, the servants placed in front of her only a single vessel containing vinegar. ... She took one earring off, and dropped the pearl in the vinegar, and when it was wasted away, swallowed it.” Moral of the story? Careful with your pearls, unless you have a point to prove (or a queendom to protect).