Along with the distinction of being June's birthstone, pearls are unique in that living organisms produce them. Although technically they are an abnormal concretion that forms on a mollusk's shell, pearls are incredibly beautiful and highly desired. These sleek, glistening gems symbolize harmony, purity, and humility. They are also believed to balance the body's hormone levels and biorhythms.
Because naturally occurring pearls were extremely rare they were of considerable value. One out of every 10,000 mollusks contains one. Accordingly, if a naturally occurring pearl was discovered either royalty or the very wealthy paid thousands of dollars to own these incredible formations. In the early 20th century, Koichi Mikimoto is credited with developing techniques for producing pearls under artificial conditions or culturing, which has made pearls more readily available.
The quality of pearls is largely determined by its nacre quality, a thick coating that provides luster and durability.
However, during the culturing process various factors can affect the nacre quality and therefore increase the number of blemishes such as welts, discoloration, or cracks visible to the naked eye.
Despite a nacre coating and hard exterior, pearls are prone to damage and require careful, gentle handling. For example, hairspray or cologne should be allowed to thoroughly dry before wearing pearls.
It is a no-no to wear pearls while swimming in chlorinated or salt water. To prevent cracking, it is best to clean pearls with a a soft, dry cloth after each wearing.
The Japanese Akoya is probably the most well known type of pearl as these pearls are commonly used to create the classic, string-of-pearls design. The most expensive Akoyas are round, white-pink, silver-pink and even blue. South Sea Pearls are generally the largest, with the most expensive being round and silver-white, white-rose or peacock black. The most affordable pearls are Chinese freshwater pearls.
One of the most famous pearls is the La Peregrina (The Incomparable), which is said to have been egg-shaped with a silvery translucent color, and a weight of 111.5 grains. King Philip IV gave the remarkable gem to his daughter, Maria Theresa, as a wedding gift. In 1969, actor Richard Burton purchased it as a present for Elizabeth Taylor.
The Pearl of Allah is touted as the world's largest naturally occurring pearl. Discovered in 1934 off the coast of Palawan, it measures a remarkable 10 inches in diameter and weighs 14 pounds! To see the Pearl of Allah, and for more information on this natural phenomenon, click here.
Photo (top left): Elizabeth Taylor wearing the La Peregrina pearl necklace