Pearls, the June birthstone, have a unique, interesting history. When pearls were actually discovered is not known. They are regarded as the world’s oldest gem and for centuries, the most valuable. The June birthstone has been treasured throughout history. From ancient burial traditions to financing the military campaign of the Roman general Vitellius, to a symbol of status, wealth and religious beliefs, pearls continue to garner the same fascination and admiration that made them so revered throughout history.
What is a pearl?
Pearls are the only gem created by a living creature. Pearls are created by mollusks when an irritant becomes trapped inside the mollusk. The mollusk responds to the irritant by coating it with aragonite and conchiolin. The composite nacre, or mother-of-pearl, creates the iridescence of the pearl. Contrary to popular opinion, pearls are not completely round. The size and shape of a pearl depends on factors such as the mollusk species, how long the pearl took to form, where it formed inside the mollusk and even the health of the mollusk. Water chemistry and temperature may also affect the size and shape of a pearl.
Color and luster of the pearl
You may be surprised to learn that pearls come in a variety, or palette of colors. Naturally-occurring pearls may be found in white, gold, pink or peach, purple and even black. As explained by the Museum of Natural History, a pearl’s color depends on “both the species of mollusk that produced the pearl and the environment in which the animal lived.” The luster of a pearl is a result of “reflection of light rays not only off the surface of the pearl, but also off the concentric inner layers of nacre.” The greater the luster, the more desirable the pearl.
Natural and cultured pearls
Pearls may be natural or cultured. Natural pearls are rarer. When you purchase pearl jewelry, it is important to know the difference. Natural pearls occur within the mollusk without any type of implant to cause the pearl to form. The Allure of Pearls, presented by the Smithsonian Institution, has showcased some of the world’s most awe-inspiring pearls. Even if you are not born in June, you will gaze in amazement at the Survival Pearl. This lavender-pink and bronze-colored pearl took 50-70 years to form after a snail parasite burrowed into the mussel and the pearl actually developed around the invading parasite. The Pearl of Asia is considered “one of the largest natural pearls in the world.” Its existence was made public in India during the 17th century.
Cultured pearls are created when a substance is introduced into the mussel to encourage the creation of a pearl. Kokichi Mikimoto, son of a noodle maker, is credited with “single-handedly” launching the cultured pearl industry. According to NOVA, Mikimoto was unaware of an existing patent for cultured pearl techniques. Mikimoto found a technicality enabling him to expand, buying the other rights and making cultured pearls widely available.
Whether you purchase natural pearls or cultured pearls is an individual decision. Pearls are not only the June birthstone, but a symbol of timeless beauty and elegance.