Timeless Pearls

Natural pearls are rare and have long been cherished by humans.  The early Chinese thought that pearls fell from the sky when dragons fought.  Ancient Greeks thought pearls were tears from Gods. 

Women have been adorning themselves in pearls for thousands of years. 

The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer (1665)

Mary Queen of Scots wearing black pearl necklace


Pearls are an organic material formed by molluscs.  A grain of sand or other irritant gets into the mantle of a mollusc which causes stress for the animal.  The mollusc then slowly deposits nacre over the irritant and eventually a pearl is formed.         

Pearl in shell

Black pearl in shell - Photo by Mila Zinkova

Pearls can be from saltwater or freshwater.  Saltwater pearls are produced by oysters and mussels and are usually of high quality and are more expensive than freshwater pearls.  Freshwater pearls are produced by molluscs in rivers, lakes and ponds and are more irregular and varied in shape than saltwater pearls.

Some pearls are natural and some are cultured.  Today natural pearls have limited availability because constant demand led to overfishing of pearl beds and many pearl beds were lost forever.  As a result, natural pearls have become very expensive.

The shortage of natural pearls has led to the cultivation of pearls.  Pearls are cultured by cutting open the membrane of a mollusc and implanting between 1 and 20 round mother-of-pearl beads.  The beads serves as the stressor to the animal, which then deposits the nacre layer over the beads, creating the pearl.  Most often large beads are implanted to speed up the cultivating process as it takes 3 years for just 1 mm of nacre to form. 

Photo by Remi Jouan on Wikimedia Commons

In this photo, cultured tahitian pearls that have been cut in half.  You can see the mother-of-pearl centres that were used to start the pearls. 

The cultivation of pearls has led to an abundance of affordable pearls on the market which means that many women can now afford to indulge in their love for pearls.

Pearl is the birthstone for June.


One thought on “Timeless Pearls

  1. Thank you for the nice article about June’s birthstone, pearls. It’s very telling to see the photo of the cut in half Tahitian pearls. One rarely sees the insides of pearls! I also enjoyed seeing Mary, Queen of Scots, in a string of black pearls.

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