June has the honour of calling Pearl its birthstone. Actually, June is one of two months which have three gemstones associated with it, Pearl, Alexandrite and Moonstone. We will be diving into a quick study of Pearls, their history, where they are found, and so much more!
Pearl is a unique gem. It is the only gem made by living creatures. Molluscs produce pearls by depositing calcium carbonate in layers around microscopic irritants. Even though any shelled mollusc can make a pearl, only two groups of bivalve molluscs use nacre (also known as “Mother-of-Pearl'') to create the iridescent pearls valued in jewellery.
A rich and lustrous history.
Just like many other popular gems, Pearls have adorned and been coveted by royalty and aristocracy the world over. Widely regarded as the oldest gem, the discovery and use of pearls as jewellery predate written history. Pearls have been cherished for millennia and the earliest known example of pearl jewellery was found in the sarcophagus of a Persian Princess dated to 420 BC - the specimen is currently on display in the Louvre Museum. Research also suggests that pearls were gifted to Chinese royalty as early as 2300 BC, while in ancient Rome Julius Caesar passed a law in the 1st Century BC limiting the wearing of pearls to the ruling classes only.
Natural Oysters were abundant in the Arabian Gulf and these beautiful gemstones were a source of wealth and trade in the region for centuries before the rise of cultured pearls.
Shrouded in Legend
The longevity and illustrious history of Pearls means that this beautiful gem has many legends attributed to it. Ancient Chinese believed that pearls were symbolic of the wearer's purity and strength of character. Medieval Knights wore pearls into battle, believing that the gems would keep them safe. Ancient Vedic texts tell that Pearls were born of the Earth’s waters and the heaven’s powers and were fertilized by a flash of lightning. They also considered Pearls to be the daughters of the moon, while in western cultures these gems were associated with the goddess of love and beauty - Venus, who also came from the sea.
Some cultures say that pearls are tears shed by the gods, and the colour of the pearl is associated with the emotion experienced by the god or goddess when they cried. In Polynesian folklore, the god Lono came down to earth on a rainbow and presented the beautiful daughter of a chief with black pearls as a gift. While Chinese myth tells that pearls fell from the sky when dragons fought in the clouds. In Chinese culture, golden pearls are often believed to bring prosperity and good fortune.
All the colours under the sea! How Pearls get their colours
Pearls are created predominantly when an irritant gets caught in the flesh of an bivalve mollusc that produces nacre (also called mother-of-pearl). In response to the irritant, the mollusc (like an oyster) coats the irritant in layers of nacre to make it smooth and less irritating against its flesh.
The colour of the host mollusc genetically determines the colour of the pearl. Different types of molluscs can produce pearls in many different colours. The shell of the mollusc, like the lip of an oyster, for example, is a good indicator for the colour an eventual pearl may be. For example Tahitian black lipped oysters produce black pearls as this is the tone of nacre these molluscs produce.
Pearls usually have a body colour and an overtone. Body colours include white, black, cream, silver, yellow (gold), or grey. The overtone is a lustre colour that is just barely hinted at over the body colour. Overtones can be rose, green, blue or violet.
Saltwater vs. Freshwater Pearls
Natural Pearls are very rare and most pearls on the market today are cultured - grown in a controlled environment like an oyster or mussel farm, where seeds are inserted under the flesh of these creatures to create Pearls. There are two main types of pearls. Saltwater and Freshwater.
Salt water pearls are most commonly cultured in the warm waters of the Pacific ocean. Big saltwater pearl producing countries include:
China, Japan, Australia, Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines, The Cook Islands, French Polynesia, and New Zealand.
Salt water pearls tend to be round in shape and tend to have a thinner nacre coating of 0.5 - 6mm. Salt water pearls are usually cultured 1 or two at a time, for between three and six years. This means that saltwater pearls are often larger and more lustrous than freshwater pearls making them more valuable too.
Freshwater Pearls are found in rivers, streams and freshwater lakes across the globe and are most commonly commercially produced in China, the USA and Japan.
A freshwater mussel used for pearl cultivation can produce up to 50 pearls at any time! Freshwater pearls also have a much shorter growing period, taking around 18 months - 2 years to produce. Recently however, some growers have decreased the number of seeds inserted and increased the growing time to 3 - 6 years, to create larger pearls to meet demand as larger pearls have increased in popularity.
Often referred to as baroque pearls, freshwater pearls are traditionally fancy shaped rather than round and come in a variety of white, cream, pink and silver colours. Although freshwater pearls are composed of almost 100% nacre, the type of nacre produced by freshwater mussels are less lustrous than their saltwater counterparts. To achieve the same shine freshwater pearls are often dyed or treated.
Pearls do not have a standard grading system like other gemstones do. The value of a pearl frequently depends on the scarcity, lustre, surface, size, shape and colour of the pearl in question. The larger, rounder, and shinier a pearl is without treatment the more expensive it is likely to be to purchase - pearls with a smooth surface also earn a higher price. Natural saltwater pearls are rare and as a result a lot more expensive than cultured saltwater or freshwater pearls.
The exception to this rule is Tahitian pearls. The French Polynesian government controls the grading and exportation of Tahitian pearls as part of a conservation effort to ensure that their seabed and ocean ecosystem is nurtured and well maintained, as well as a source of income for the local economy.
How to care for your pearl jewellery
Pearl jewellery is more delicate than other types of jewellery. Pearls are soft gems (2.5 - 4.5 on Mohs Scale) and are usually strung on specialty strings. We recommend prevention rather than cure for caring for your pearls. Like high heels, your pearl jewellery should be the last thing you put on before you leave and the first thing you take off when you get home. We recommend that you do not wear your pearl jewellery while sleeping, showering, swimming or exercising. Avoid contact with body care products and harsh chemicals, like perfumes, hairspray, lotions and household cleaners. Be especially careful around alcohol, acetone or ammonia based cleaners and solvents as these will damage your pearls.
Pearls have adorned people for thousands of years and their popularity has once again seen a resurgence. These elegant gems are symbolic of purity, love, honour and rebirth, are timeless and classic and go well with any skin tone.
Check out our range of Pearl jewellery today!