June Birthstone - Pearl

The timeless pearl is June’s birthstone. Usually thought of as round and white, pearls can come in many hues and shapes. Five factors determine the value of the pearl: luster, orient, surface-cleanliness, shape and size.

Vintage pearl rings.
Vintage pearl rings.

The word “pearl” is derived from the Latin word “pirum”, which translates to “pear”, reflecting the shape of the gem. They are found inside the shells of mollusks, including oysters, clams, and mussels. They are formed through the natural secretion of a shell-like substance, called nacre, around a foreign irritant.

Natural pearls can be found in river, lakes, gulfs, bays, seas, and oceans all over the world.


Pearls have been seen as one of the most highly desired gems for thousands of years. As far back as 2300 BC, Chinese records indicate that pearls were one of the most highly valued possessions of ancient nobility and royalty.

In Ancient Egypt, the use of mother of pearl as decoration dates back 4000 years, even though the use of the pearl in their culture was not prominent until about 500 BC.

A roman history of pearls

In Ancient Rome, pearls were highly prized and worn only by royalty and the most prestigious of nobility. The Romans associated them with Venus, the mother of all Roman citizens and the goddess of love and beauty.

Roman citizens adorned their couches and other furniture with pearls as a way to flaunt their social significance. Roman women slept in pearls and sewed them onto their gowns. The infamous Roman emperor, Caligula, is said to have made his horse a Consul (the highest recognized appointed office for the Roman Empire), decorating it with a pearl necklace.

Pearls were valued so highly in the Roman Empire, that it is said the Roman general Vitellius financed an entire military campaign by selling just one of his mother’s pearl earrings.

Art deco onyx and pearl tassle bracelet.
Art deco onyx and pearl tassle bracelet.

A banquet of cleopatra and marc antony

One of the most famous stories in Roman tradition took place at a banquet given by the Egyptian Empress Cleopatra in honor of the Roman leader, Marc Antony. This was Cleopatra’s famous attempt to convince Marc Antony that Egypt’s rich history of heritage and wealth put it above conquest. Roman historian, Pliny, records that Cleopatra wagered that she could provide the most expensive banquet ever provided, with only a container of sour wine.

Cleopatra is said to have removed one of her pearl earrings, recorded to have been worth 60 million sesterces (equal to 1,875,000 ounces of silver) and said to be the largest pearls in the world at the time, crushed it and dropped it in the wine. Cleopatra drank down her wine, but Marc Antony declined his meal (Cleopatra’s other pearl earring), and declared that Cleopatra had won the wager.

A modern history of pearls

Native Americans, who harvested fresh water pearls from rivers and lakes, valued them as highly as any other culture to come across them. It is recorded that a Native American princess presented Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto, with gifts of animal skins, cloth, copper, and pearls.

Once the European colonizers (British, French, and Spanish alike), discovered the vast amount of pearls available in the new world, these gems became one of the most important exports harvested in the North American continent. So many pearls were sent back to Europe that the American continent became known as “the land of pearls”.

Mother of pearl was also seen as a highly sought after export available in abundance in the newly discovered continent. Billions of buttons used for clothing were exported all over the world made of mother of pearl. The demand dwindled in the mid 1900’s when the invention of plastic quickly replaced the need for mother of pearl.

Salt water pearls were also found in abundance in the Caribbean Sea, along the coasts of Central and South America. These resources remained productive until overfishing and pollution caused the pearl supply to dry up in the 1800s.

The invention of the cultured pearl

The concept of culturing pearls was first discovered, independently, by both Japanese biologist, Tokichi Nishikawa and carpenter, Tatsuhei Mise. They would insert a piece of the oyster epithelial membrane (the lip of the mantle tissue) surrounding a piece of shell of metal. When inserted into the pearl’s shell, the oyster secretes nacre to coat the irritant, and thus, a pearl is formed.

Mise received a patent for this idea in 1906, and Nishikawa discovered he was not alone in his ideas, when he applied for the same patent shortly thereafter. In a compromise, the pair signed an agreement, combining their discovery into what would become known as the Mise-Nishikawa method (which is still used today).

How kokichi mikimoto changed the way the world looks at pearls

While these two men are credited with inventing the concept of culturing pearls, it was the son of a noodle maker, Kikichi Mikimoto, who introduced cultured pearls to the world. Mikimoto had received a patent in 1896 for producing hemispherical pearls (mabes), and a 1908 patent for culturing pearls in mantle tissue. He was not able to use the Mise-Nishikawa method without invalidating his own patents, so he altered it to cover a technique used to produce round pearls in mantle tissue.

After being granted this patent in 1916, Mikimoto, with the help of his wife, Ume, began his expansion, purchasing the rights to the Mise-Nishikawa method.

David Webb pearl onyx and diamond ring.
David Webb pearl onyx and diamond ring.

Through years of testing different irritants: metals, wood, glass, gold, lead, and everything else he could fine, Mikimoto discovered that the highest success rates came when he used the shells from U.S. mussels as his nuclei. Although new materials are still being tested to this day, U.S. mussel shells are still used as the basis for almost all cultured, saltwater pearls.

Thanks to the impressive marketing tactics of Kikichi Mikimoto and his wife Ume, cultured pearls thrived, and now pearls are one of the most affordable gems on the market.

The significance of pearls in religion

In Hindu holy texts, pearls are mentioned numerous times. One of the most recognized stories tells of how the god Krishna discovered the first pearl and presented it to his daughter, Pandaïa, on her wedding day.

In Islam, the pearl is seen as a sign of perfection. The Koran describes pearls as being one of the great rewards found in paradise.

the mytical properties of pearls

The pearl has long been seen as a symbol of beauty, faithfulness and generosity. Traditionally worn by brides on their wedding day, pearls are said to provide love and fertility and ward off evil. These gems are said to bring the wearer modesty, chastity, and purity.

The color of pearls have been also associated with different qualities. Black and gold pearls are seen to symbolize wealth, blue symbolizes love, and pink is associated with success.

The use of pearls in medicine

In Roman times, pearls were often boiled in distilled water and drunken by lunatics to restore their reason. Over the years, they were also used to treat ailments relating to the heart, spleen, stomach, and intestines. They have also been said to assist in anger management and inspire creativity when worn.

Black pearls were often used to treat diseases of the liver, kidney, bladder and urinary tract. Black pearls are also used to promote the discharge of kidney stones. Pink pearls are said to treat depression and help prevent certain allergic reactions.

Vintage Etruscan style yellow gold and pearl pendant.
Vintage Etruscan style yellow gold and pearl pendant.

In China and other Asian countries, even today, pearls are often powdered and taken as medicine for fainting and stomach ailments. Many cultured pearls that are seen as substandard jewels are sold in pharmacies as a medication.

the world's most storied pearl: la peregrina (the wanderer)

Said to have been originally given from a slave to his owner 400 years ago in exchange for his freedom, this pearl was gifted to King Philip II of Spain and Mary I of England. It remained in the possession of the British royal family until it was purchased by Richard Burton in 1969 as a gift for Elizabeth Taylor.

fun facts about pearls

  • The oldest known pearl jewelry was found in the sarcophagus of a Persian princess who died in 520 BC.
  • In 1916, famed French jeweler, Jacques Cartier, purchased his famous store front on New York’s Fifth Avenue by trading two pearl necklaces.
  • The name Margarita means “pearls”. Other names such as Margaret, Peggy, Marjorie, Margot, Maggie, Gretchen, Gretal and Rita also mean “pearl” and signify purity, innocence, humility and sweetness
  • Pearls take their color from the shell inside which they are growing.
  • Harvesting pearls from oysters does not kill them. They can be used to make pearls numerous times.
  • Pearls are a genetic miracle of nature, even amongst cultured oysters, only about 5% produce pearls of an appropriate shape, color and lustre to be considered fine gem quality.
  • There are an estimated 100,000 species of mollusk, but only 14 are used to produce cultured pearls.
  • Well-formed Natural Pearls are substantially more expensive than Cultured Pearls

famous quotes about pearls

“Pearls are always appropriate” – Jackie Kennedy

“A woman needs ropes and ropes of pearls” – Coco Chanel

“I feel undressed if I don’t have my pearls on. My pearls are my security blanket” – Lady Sarah Churchill

“I favor pearls on screen, and in my private life” – Grace Kelly

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