Pearl is not only the birthstone for June but is also the gem for the third and thirtieth anniversaries. By the way, June actually has three birthstones, pearl, alexandrite and moonstone.
What is not to like about pearls? They come in all different shapes and sizes. They can be perfect shining spheres or lustrous baroque shapes. They are warm to the touch and they are organic!
Some would say they are the best loved gems of all time. Both natural and cultured pearls occur in a wide variety of colors. The most familiar are white and cream, the palette of colors extends to every hue. Natural pearls form around a microscopic irritant in the bodies of certain mollusks without human help of any kind. Cultured pearls are the result of the deliberate insertion of a bead or piece of tissue that the mollusk coats with nacre. Human intervention and care are required.
There are four major types of cultured whole pearls. The akoya, which is the type that is most familiar to many jewelry customers. Japan and China both produce saltwater akoya cultured pearls. The south sea grown in Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines which are the leading sources of these saltwater cultured pearls. The beloved tahitian, cultivated primarily around the islands of French Polynesia (the most familiar of these is Tahiti), these saltwater cultured pearls usually range from white to black. Last but not least, the freshwater which are usually cultured in freshwater lakes and ponds. They’re produced in a wide range of sizes, shapes, and colors. China and the US are the leading sources.
People have coveted natural pearls as symbols of wealth and status for thousands of years. A Chinese historian recorded the oldest written mention of natural pearls in 2206 BC. As the centuries progressed toward modern times, desire for natural pearls remained strong. Members of royal families as well as wealthy citizens in Asia, Europe, and elsewhere treasured natural pearls and passed them from generation to generation.
Julius Caeser obsessed over natural pearls and, as they were associated with the goddess of love, Venus, Caesar would generously gift strings of them to his favorite mistresses. Another natural pearl lover was Cleopatra, who famously dissolved a pearl in vinegar and drank it to best her lover Mark Anthony in a competition to see who could throw the most lavish dinner party. The final tally for her sumptuous feast: 10 million sesterces, or somewhere between $15 and $20 million today. At the height of the Roman Empire, when pearl fever reached its peak, the historian Suetonius wrote that the Roman general Vitellius financed an entire military campaign by selling just one of his mother’s pearl earrings.
From those ancient times until the discovery of the New World in 1492, some of the outstanding sources of natural pearls were the Persian Gulf, the waters of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Chinese rivers and lakes, and the rivers of Europe.
An early mosaic featuring pearls. Photo courtesy of PBS.
Elizabeth I, the Armada Portrait, draped in pearls.
During Christopher Columbus’s third (1498) and fourth (1502) voyages to the New World, he repeatedly encountered native people adorned with natural pearls. His discovery of natural pearl sources in the waters of present-day Venezuela and Panama intensified demand in Europe. However, within a hundred years, these natural pearl sources had declined due to overfishing, pearl culturing, plastic buttons, and oil drilling.
The first steps toward pearl culturing occurred hundreds of years ago in China, and Japanese pioneers successfully produced whole cultured pearls around the beginning of the twentieth century. These became commercially important in the 1920s (about the same time natural pearl production began to decline). From the 1930s through the 1980s, pearl culturing diversified and spread to various countries around the world.
Pearls are treasures from the earth’s ponds, lakes, seas, and oceans, and they’ve always embodied the mystery, power, and life-sustaining nature of water.
The spherical shape of some pearls led many cultures to associate this gem with the moon. In ancient China, pearls were believed to guarantee protection from fire and fire-breathing dragons. In Europe, they symbolized modesty, chastity, and purity.
Duchess of Windsor pearl suite.
Interestingly enough, the single strand natural pearl and diamond necklace is a signature piece of Cartier’s of Paris, designed and executed by the company for Queen Mary of Teck, during the reign of her husband King George V, from 1910 to 1936. The necklace is composed of 28 natural pearls ranging in size from approximately 9.2 mm to 16.8 mm. The length of the necklace is 14 inches, which based on their length, falls under a “choker.” Queen Mary, who became famous for superbly bejeweling herself for formal occasions, and had a great passion for collecting jewels and jewelry, gifted the single-strand pearl and diamond necklace to her son, the Duke of Windsor, who in turn gifted it to his beloved paramour, the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson, after his marriage to her in 1937 following his abdication as King of the United Kingdom. Wallis Simpson assumed the title Duchess of Windsor after her marriage to Edward, the Duke of Windsor. Thus the modification of the name to “Duchess of Windsor/Queen Mary” gives a true reflection of the provenance of the celebrated jewelry pieces. More on that later.
David Webb ruby and cultured pearl fringe necklace, owned by Doris Duke. Photo courtesy of Christie’s.
Pink conch pearl and diamond earrings, photo courtesy of Christie’s.
Tiffany pearl and diamond necklace, photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Tiffany cultured pearl, conch shell and diamond earrings. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Baroque pearl and colored gemstone sautoir, photo courtesy of 1st dibs.
Olivier Reza blackened gold, natural pearl, yellow and white diamond ear clips. Photo courtesy of Olivier Reza.
A dragonfly brooch with gem set plique a jour wings and a mother of pearl body, circa early twentieth century. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Psst…..speaking of famous pearl jewelry, a post on the Duchess of Windsor and her jewels will be coming shortly.