Perhaps the best-loved gems of all time, pearls—natural and cultured—occur in a wide variety of colours. Pearls are the only gemstones made by living creatures. Their serene beauty makes for a perfect combination with more sparkly, flashy gems. Their distinctive appearance and watery origins have inspired beautiful pearl designs across the globe.
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Pearls ~ Natural or Cultured
Pearls are the only gem that have organic origins within various mollusks, while the others form as minerals underground. Mollusks produce pearls by depositing layers of calcium carbonate around microscopic irritants that get lodged in their shells—usually not a grain of sand, as commonly believed.
Natural pearls form in the bodies, or mantle tissue, of certain mollusks, usually around a microscopic irritant, and always without human help of any kind.
The growth of cultured pearls requires human intervention and care. Today, most of the mollusks used in the culturing process are raised specifically for that purpose, although some wild mollusks are still collected and used.
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The History of Pearls
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 have treasured natural pearls and passed them on from generation to generation.
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.
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.
Pearl Symbolism and the Soul's Journey
In many ancient Asian cultures, the smooth wholeness and seemingly “magical” appearance of pearls in such lowly lifeforms as oysters indicated the presence of divinity. The pearl represented the journey of the soul or spirit along the path to perfection. In ancient burials, mourners placed pearls in the mouths of the deceased. Since pearls apparently contained the principles of life, they hoped they could assist the dead on their journeys beyond. Mourners also decorated burial gifts and clothes with pearls. This seemingly ritual act may have started as a practical act. Pearls were among the first materials used for beads. Their natural bead-like shape made them easy to use for decoration and yielded lovely results.
An assessment of the following characteristics determines the value of each type of pearl.
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