Often referred to as a gift from the sea, pearl’s origin has been an object of folklore throughout history. Early Chinese myths told of pearls falling from the sky when dragons fought. Ancient Persian legend said that pearls were tears of the gods. In classical times, it was believed that pearls were formed when moonbeams lit upon shellfish, while Indian mythology suggested pearls were formed when dewdrops fell from the heavens into the sea.
In truth, pearls are lustrous gems with an organic origin. They are formed inside mollusks such as oysters, clams and mussels when an irritant such as a tiny stone, grain of sand or small parasite enters the mollusk's shell. To protect its soft inner body, the mollusk secretes a smooth, lustrous substance called nacre around the foreign object. Layer upon layer of nacre coats the irritant and hardens, ultimately forming a pearl.
This process of building a solid pearl can take up to seven or eight years. Generally, the thicker the nacre becomes, the richer the “glow” of the pearl and greater its value. While pearls that have formed on the inside of the shell (called blister pearls) are usually irregular in shape and have little commercial value, those that are formed within the tissue of the mollusk are either spherical or pear-shaped and are highly sought-after for jewelry. Most pearls on the market measure 7.0-7.5mm in diameter, but can be found as small as 1mm or as large as 20mm.
Although some pearls are found naturally in mollusks (considered the most valuable), the vast majority of pearls are grown, or cultured, on pearl farms. To instigate this culturing process, a small shell bead, or nucleus, is surgically inserted into the mantle of an oyster. Despite the fact that pearls are harvested in great quantities on pearl farms, producing a quality pearl is an extremely rare event. It is estimated that half of all nucleated oysters do not survive and, from those that do, only 20 percent create marketable pearls.
Cultured and natural pearls can be distinguished from imitation pearls by rubbing them gently against the edge of a tooth. Cultured and natural pearls will feel slightly rough, like fine sandpaper, because of the texture of natural nacre. Imitations will feel quite smooth because their surfaces are merely molded or painted on smooth beads. Since nacre is organic, pearls are quite “soft” and rank only a 2.5-4.5 on the Mohs Scale. The gems are very sensitive and special care should be taken when wearing and storing them.
The value of a pearl is judged by several factors, and high-quality pearl strands should feature pearls well-matched in these factors: “orient,” the lustrous iridescence that’s produced when light is reflected from the nacre, should glow with a soft brilliance; the nacre’s texture should be clean and smooth, absent of spots, bumps or cracks; the shape of a pearl should be symmetrical and generally the rounder a pearl is, the higher its value; and although pearls come in many different colors (depending on the environment and species of mollusk), the most favored are those that have a rose-tinted hue.
Pearls are cultured in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors. Akoya pearls are the classic round pearls found in most pearl jewelry. They are mainly grown in the waters off Japan and are found in a range of hues, including white, cream, pink and peach. Mabe pearls are grown in Japan, Indonesia, French Polynesia and Australia. They are usually flat-backed and often called blister pearls because they form against the inside shells of oysters rather than within oysters’ bodies. Tahitian pearls are grown in French Polynesia and come in a range of colors, including gray and black with green, purple or rose overtones. Because of their large size and unique dark colors, they command very high prices. Also prized for their large size, white South Sea pearls are grown in Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines and other areas of the South Pacific.
Freshwater pearls come in various colors and are grown in bays, lakes and rivers primarily in Japan, China, Europe and the United States (Mississippi River). They are often irregularly shaped and less lustrous than saltwater cultured pearls, making them substantially less expensive.
Pearls have been treasured throughout ancient folklore and history. Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, considered pearls to be sacred. The Greeks prized the gems for their beauty and believed that wearing pearls would promote marital bliss and prevent newlywed women from crying. In ancient Rome, pearls were considered the ultimate symbol of wealth and status. The ancient Egyptians were buried with them and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra favored pearls immensely. It is said that while dining with Mark Anthony, she purposely dropped a pearl into her drink to demonstrate the wealth of her rule.
As early as 2000 B.C., pearls have been used as medicine in China, where it was believed to represent wealth, power and longevity. Even today, low-grade pearls are ground for use as medicine in the Orient. Arabs and Persians also believed it was a cure for various kinds of diseases, as well as insanity.
Long ago, when pearls were not cultured and thousands of oysters had to be searched for only one pearl, the gems were important financial assets, comparable in price to real estate. Some European countries even banned all but nobility from the right to wear them. Medieval knights wore them in battle as a talisman against injury, while warriors in India encrusted pearls into their sword handles to symbolize the tears that swords can bring.
Today, the pearl is a universal symbol of innocence and purity. It is the birthstone for June and is considered the traditional gift for couples celebrating their 3rd and 30th wedding anniversaries. Many believe the gem gives wisdom through experience, quickens the laws of karma and cements engagements and love relationships. It is also considered to offer the powers of wealth, protection and luck.
The largest pearl in the world is approximately 3” long and 2” wide, weighing one-third of a pound. Called the Pearl of Asia, it was a gift from India’s Shah Jahan to his favorite wife, for whom he also built the Taj Mahal. Another famous pearl is called “La Peregrina,” or “the Wanderer,” and is considered by experts to be the most beautiful pearl in the world. Pear-shaped and measuring 1-1/2” in length, it is said that 400 years ago the pearl was found by a slave in Panama, who gave it up in return for his freedom. In 1570, the conquistadors sent the pearl to King Philip II of Spain. The pearl was passed to Mary I of England, who gave it to Prince Louis Napoleon of France, who sold it to the British Marquis of Abercon. After disappearing for a century, the pearl turned up once again in 1969 at a New York auction house. It was purchased by actor Richard Burton for his wife, Elizabeth Taylor.
Often referred to as the “Queen of Garnets,” rhodolite is the violet-red variety of the garnet family. Its most prized color is a beautiful raspberry, but the gem can also be found in shades of pink, red and wine. The name is derived from the Greek words “rhodon” and “lithos,” meaning rose-stone, which connects the gemstone today with the raspberry-pink flower known as the rhododendron.
Rhodolite is a combination of almandine and pyrope garnets. Although it is occasionally found in volcanic rock, the stone is most often found in alluvial deposits in the form of water-worn pebbles. For this reason, large solitaires weighing 5.00ct or more are seldom seen at retail. Most rhodolite is mined in Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. It ranks a 7.5 on the Mohs Scale and is ideal for jewelry.
The ancients wore rhodolites as amulets for protection from injury or death in battles. Modern folklore says rhodolite can help one understand dreams, as well as bring about love and devotion when given as a gift.
Garnet comes in a vast rainbow of naturally exquisite hues, occurring in every color except blue. It is the family of minerals that displays the greatest variety of colors than any other mineral. The eight major types of garnets include almandine, pyrope, demantoid, grossularite, tsavorite, hessonite, rhodolite and spessartite.
Named after the ancient gemstone city of Alabanda in Asia Minor, the most common type of garnet is almandine (also called almandite). It is a dark red to brownish red stone that is only slightly different from the chemical structure of its sister stone, called pyrope. While nature only grows pyropes in small sizes, it allows for almandine crystals to form in larger dimensions.
Pyrope is a high-quality garnet that can be purplish red, blood red, orange-red or crimson. It is often called the Bohemian garnet since its fierce and often slightly bronze color was highly popular in the 18th and 19th centuries when it came from the north-eastern part of the former Kingdom of Bohemia. In Europe during the Victorian times, pyrope garnets frequently decorated jewelry with many of these small stones tightly arranged along each other like the seeds of a pomegranate. In fact, the name “garnet” most likely was derived from the pomegranate, a fruit whose deep, red-purple color resembles some varieties of the gem. Many ancient pieces of garnet jewelry are also studded with the tiny red gems.
Demantoid is a rich green variety of garnet primarily found in the Ural Mountains of Russia. Russia’s leading court jeweler, Carl Fabergé, loved this brilliant garnet more than any other stone and used it in many of his creations that were lavishly adorned by the Tsars of Russia. Today, demantoid is appearing more often in the gemstone market because of new finds in Namibia. However, these particular garnets from Namibia lack "horsetail-inclusions,” the fine bushy-shaped inclusions that are characteristic of the sought-after Russian demantoids. The gem is quite rare and can cost several thousand dollars per carat depending on size and quality. The larger, brighter demantoids are exceedingly scarce and have been known to show exceptional brilliance, even higher than diamonds.
Grossularite, available in pinks, browns, greens and yellows, is especially cherished because of its many in-between shades and earth colors. In the last year of the 20th century, large grossularite occurrences were discovered in Mali. Charming because of their high brilliance, the Mali garnets make even the brown color attractive and vivid.
Tsavorite is the trade name for a fine green grossularite. It ranges from vivid light green to velvety deep green and, like all other garnets, features a strikingly high brilliance. Tsavorite was discovered in 1967 by British geologist Campbell R. Bridges, and was re-named by Tiffany’s in New York after its occurrence near the famous game park Tsavo-National Park. Mined in Tanzania and Kenya, this particular stone is quite rare and can cost several thousand dollars per carat depending on size and quality. Larger tsavorites are exceedingly scarce.
Hessonite is the variety name for a fine orange, cinnamon brown or pinkish variety of grossularite. It most commonly occurs in golds, oranges and browns.
Rhodolite is a pyrope-almandine garnet that features a velvety red color with a fine purple or raspberry colored undertone. One of the most popular varieties, it is mined in East Africa, India and Sri Lanka and was originally discovered in the United States.
Spessartite garnet can be red or blackish brown, but is most commonly available in golds, oranges and warmer browns. Originally named after its occurrence in the German Spessart Mountains, there was a surprising discovery of the bright orange-red stone in Nigeria and Namibia. Until then, spessartites had existed as mere collector’s items or rarities and were hardly ever used for jewelry because they were so rare. But the new location discovery changed the world of jewelry gemstones and spessartites made their way into jewelry fashion. The most popular type of spessartite is the mandarin garnet, a gem that features a bright orange hue.
Traditionally given as 2nd wedding anniversary gifts, garnets are celebrated as January’s birthstone. They are found all over the world, including Africa, Australia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, North America, South and Central America, and Southeast Asia. The garnet ranges from 7.0-7.5 on the Mohs Scale and has been given many different names throughout the gemstone trade, including Arizona Ruby, Arizona Spinel, Montana Ruby or New Mexico Ruby. The stone features a high refraction of light that creates an amazing brilliance and luminosity. In fact, Noah used a garnet lantern to illuminate the darkness and navigate the Ark through 40 days and nights of torrential rain.
Throughout history, garnets have been widely known and prized for their rich hues and supposed mystical properties. Adored by the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis, the gem symbolized faith, truth and friendship and was a favorite of Egyptian jewelry artisans. Garnets were taken into the tombs with the dead as payment to the gods for safe passage through the nether world. It is said that King Solomon wore a large red garnet along with eleven other magical gems in his breastplate (representing the 12 steps of Jacob's Ladder) to help him win battles. Nineteenth-century Asiatic warriors even used the hard stones as bullets. In the 13th century, medieval travelers wore garnets as popular talismans and protective stones, many of which were carved with lions. The gems were thought to repel evil spirits, bad dreams and people with evil intent.
Today, garnets are thought to have protective powers and can be carried by travelers to protect against accidents. The stone is said to light up the night and protect its owner from nightmares. It is also believed to strengthen the body and mind by sparking creativity, dispelling anger and curing depression. People may use the stone to increase the power of their energy fields and gather good vibes. Current superstitions say that the stone symbolizes loyalty and can be exchanged between friends to symbolize affection and ensure they meet again. When used as a healing stone, it is said to relieve skin inflammations and regulate blood flow.