By Angie Marei
The Magical Pearl
Although those born in June are graced with three birthstones (Pearl, Moonstone, & Alexandrite) the Pearl is by far the most recognized and adored. They are one of the most popular gems in the world but unlike Diamonds, Emeralds, Rubies, Sapphires, and other precious stones, they are unique in that they don’t come from deep within the earth but rather from the earth’s bodies of water. They also don’t require polishing or cutting as they are already naturally beautiful when harvested.
The first known mention of pearls dates back to a Chinese historian in 2206 BC, but the desire to own pearls can be noted during every point in recorded history. From members of royal families to wealthy citizens in Asia, Europe, and all over the world, natural pearls were treasured and viewed as status symbols.
Up until the discovery of the New World in 1492, natural pearls were sourced mainly from the Persian Gulf, the waters of Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka), various bodies of water in China, and European rivers. In the Americas native people would adorn themselves in pearls and it was discovered that their source was the waters of present-day Venezuela and Panama. This increased pearl demand in Europe but within a hundred years, these sources had been wiped out due to overfishing and pearl harvesting.
The Japanese were the first to produce cultured pearls around the start of the 20th century and cultured pearls became a commercial necessity around the 1920's as the resources for natural pearls declined. For the next 60 years, numerous countries also began to cultivate pearls and the markets flourished.
Diving in the ancient Panama Pearl fishery. Photo courtesy J.P. Delgado.
Freshwater & Saltwater Pearls- What's the Difference?
Freshwater pearls are grown in mussels that live in rivers and lakes and mostly come from China.
Saltwater pearls come from oceans and grow in oysters. Akoya pearls, which are grown mostly in Japan, China, and Vietnam, are among the most prized and high-quality varieties of saltwater pearls because of the superior luster and nearly ideal round shape they exhibit.
Most pearls that you find in jewelry today are cultivated, as natural pearls are rare and very expensive. Pearls are cultivated by placing a tiny piece of tissue or a bead into the mollusk which in turn begins to cover it with nacre – the material pearls are made of. The longer the growing period, the larger the pearl becomes.
Freshwater produces thicker nacre and different composition than saltwater. Freshwater pearls typically have less luster and gloss, whereas saltwater pearls are made of thinner layers of nacre and have a deeper shimmer to them. Although the Freshwater variety is made completely of nacre, the difference comes from the core piece and the size used. Cultivation techniques are improving and the luster of freshwater pearls is becoming comparable to that of saltwater pearls.
Freshwater pearls are less expensive for a couple of reasons. To begin with, freshwater mussels are larger and thus can produce more pearls than saltwater oysters. Because of this, they are more abundant. The shape is also a trait consumers look for. The round shape and greater luster of saltwater pearls command a much higher price.
Carudatta Presenting a Pearl Necklace to Vasantesena (c. 1952), Y. G. Srimati.
Lore & Legend
In many cultures, the pearl’s soft white lustrous orbs evoke the Moon. The lunar connections are further reinforced by the moon’s association with the sea where pearls originate. Ancient writings say the pearl is born of the Earth’s waters and the heaven’s powers, fertilized by a flash of lightning. A pearl is considered to be the daughter of the Moon. In the west, it has astrological associations with the planet Venus and just like pearls; the goddess of love came from the sea.
Because of their shape Nordic, Roman, and Greek cultures believed white pearls were tears shed by the gods. One legend says that the tears Eve cried when she was banished from Eden turned to pearls.
Polynesian lore claims the god Lono came down on a rainbow carrying black pearls for a princess as gifts. The black pearls were the source of the rainbow due to the colors reflected in the gem.
The Chinese are partial to golden pearls, believing they bring prosperity and luck. Many times, Chinese art depicts dragons carrying golden pearls in their mouths or claws. Ancient Chinese civilizations believed someone who wore pearls would be protected from fire and dragons,
Many European cultures viewed pearls as symbols of modesty, chastity, and purity and were therefore bestowed as gifts to newly born children.
In Victorian England, mourning jewelry was often made of small seed pearls to symbolize tears.
Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (c. 1484–1486).
Wealth, Symbolism, & The Soul
Natural pearls are valuable due to their rarity. For centuries collectors have searched for the perfect pearl. In ancient times, if one longed for wealth, they would select the finest pearl available, wish upon it to bring them riches, and then toss it away. It was thought that if you could discard a valuable pearl, you would indeed become a rich man.
Throughout history, pearls have been referenced in numerous ways. Matthew 7:6 in the bible admonishes against throwing “pearls before swine,” meaning one should not waste what is valuable on fruitless endeavors. Today, when someone offers good bits of advice they are referred to as “pearls of wisdom.”
Many ancient Asian cultures believe that pearls indicate the presence of divinity as it would otherwise be impossible for something like the lowly oyster to produce something so magical. It represents the journey of the soul or spirit along the path to perfection. When it came to burials, mourners would place pearls they believed to hold the principles of life, in the mouths of the deceased to help them with their journey to the great beyond.
In Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism, the “flaming pearl” represents wisdom and divine being. Healers and shamans use them as conduits for relaxation and provoking introspection.
In other ancient cultures, Pearls had been thought to improve symptoms related to lung diseases such as tuberculosis. Magicians and wizards used pearls to reverse the effects of poison and also used them to conjure up beings from other worlds to be used as protection. Ancient and island healers believe pearls stimulate the heart chakra, reduce fevers, eliminate allergies, and put new mothers giving birth into a state of relaxation.
Pearls are the ultimate treasures from the Earth’s bodies of water, and they embody the mystery, power, and life-sustaining nature that water provides. Everyone should own at least one pearl so that they can feel the power of the world around them.
"How could you reach the pearl by only looking at the sea?
If you seek the pearl, be a diver.”