Jun 15, 2021

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June’s Birthstone: The Pearl

The pearl. June’s birthstone. Nature’s bizarre wonder. 

The pearl. June’s birthstone. Nature’s bizarre wonder. 

Most gems are formed in a shroud of mystery: wrung from wrestling layers of inner earth, shaped from a volcano’s fiery lava, pressed into existence by the force of the world.

But not pearls. Oh man, not even close

Of course, the pearl’s story begins in the watery depths, where the weirdest parts of nature thrive. It can happen to any mollusk really, but for the sake of our tale, let’s say it’s an oyster. Ollie the Oyster. Ollie has had a rough day — first he wakes up late (again) and then at brunch, he gets something stuck in his mantle tissue. Whether it’s a grain of sand, a little parasite, or some other irritant, Ollie has to find it and make sure it can’t spread. He cordons off the area into something called a pearl sac and then begins repeatedly secreting a liquid called nacre. The nacre builds up and hardens over the intruder, effectively isolating it and… making a pearl. 

Girl with the pearl earring(s) Troika Needle Drop Earrings by Noor Shamma

And then a few months or years later, a fisherman might find Ollie, pop him open and hark! A luminescent little orb. 

For millennia, that is where all the pearls in the world came from. Obviously, this is a very specific set of circumstances, so it’s no surprise that pearls became highly valued. In fact, the chances of finding a pearl in the wild that would qualify as moderately valuable was about 1 in 10,000 — that’s a lot of shells to open. This rarity meant pearls were one of the most sought after gems in history, attracting all the usual suspects that come along with that sort of reputation: the royals, the wealthy, and the religious. 

It began early, this obsession. 

Evidence of the pearl trade dates as far back as the prehistoric era, and written records, beginning around 300 AD, show a thriving industry across Asia. As demand increased, so too did the attempts to retrieve the pearls: early divers from 12th century China were outfitted with ad hoc uniforms that consisted of a rope around the waist so they could be pulled up as needed. 

Opening trade routes and monarchies looking to expand their geographic stake led to the recognition of new pearl sources in what would later be called Panama and Venezuela. (Obviously, these were not “discoveries” because… people already lived there. This pearl stuff was not new to them.) 

Exposure bred desire — the wealthy and important from all corners of the world had heard tales of the radiant gem and they wanted one too

Outside of the typical sphere, pearls can come in a variety of irregular shapes and colors. Jewelry artisans created unusual pieces from oddly shaped pearls, like this 16thc toothpick/ pendant (let’s bring that accessory back!)
Courtesy British Museum

This went on for centuries — stories about the stone are so wild they sound almost apocryphal: like when a 1st century Roman general paid for a military expedition by selling off a single pearl earring (his mother’s, natch), or when, in 1917, Pierre Cartier (yes, that Cartier) traded a pearl necklace for a building on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. And one of our favorites: Mark Antony betting Cleopatra that he could put together a more expensive banquet than her (truly, the things people did before TV), so he goes all out on food and entertainment — the whole nine. Meanwhile, Cleopatra pulls out a glass of vinegar, drops in two basically priceless enormous pearls (which dissolve in certain chemical compounds), drinks the whole thing and was like, “I’m sorry did you say something?”

The Queen of Spain, c 1606, wearing one of the most famous pearls in history: La Peregrina. An 11 gram pear-shaped gem that dazzled royalty, hypnotized Napoleon and ended up as an accidental chew toy for one of Elizabeth Taylor’s dogs. 
Courtesy: Wikipedia

And so, desire bred demand and demand called for increased pearl hunting, which led to… decreased resources. A finite supply will inevitably be exhausted. Unless… a new supply is discovered. And that’s exactly (sort of) what happened in the early 20th century. 

You see, for years, people had been trying to exert some control over the process — could they force the irritant into the shell and thereby jumpstart the action? A savvy Japanese entrepreneur, working with research from Australian and Japanese scientists, had the first successful batch of “farmed” pearls in 1928; pearls that originate from farms are called “cultured.” Though still a complicated process, exemplary pearls could be created basically on demand. The result: they were no longer solely the domain of the obscenely wealthy. 

It meant there was a little more beauty and radiance in the world.

And let’s not forget the inherent pull of the pearl: ancient Chinese medicines instructed it to be crushed into a powder and ingested for strength. Texts from every major religion mention the pearl as a priceless reward for the faithful or a symbol of innocence and purity. The Victorians wore pearl jewelry when mourning the death of a beloved; it represented their tears. In many cultures, it has long had associations with the water and night sky, symbolizing the energy of both. It holds that power still.

Born from the belly of a shellfish, appearing like a fully formed moon in miniature: inexplicable beauty arising from nature’s chaos. It’s the perfect match for June, where seasons shift precariously to reveal the longest day, the brightest light, the fullest moon, hiding perched in the sky like nothing more than a fat gleaming pearl.

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