Jun 7, 2012

Pearls :: Birthstone for June :: part II

Ask any woman the provenance of her first string of pearls,
and no doubt she will regale, 
in fabulous detail,
exactly from whom,
and how,
and why,
 she received them.

As the modern birthstone for June,
replacing the earlier tradition of agates,
pearls are indeed a gem to be treasured.

My first strand necklace of pearls 
was given to me by my grandmother,
who had worn them herself as a young woman in the 1920s,
when opera pearls, of graded sizes,
were all the rage.
When she was in her 90s,
she decided that I would probably wear them more than she,
and I was over the moon to receive them as a teenager.
(Sadly, a few weeks after our wedding,
our house was broken into and the glorious pearls were stolen, 
along with my husband's black dinner suit,
white silk bow tie + his new shoes,
all my perfumes and our best suitcase.
The police commented that it was at least a stylish thief.
But my grandmother's pearls were irreplaceable.)

Later, a solitary pearl on a silver chain necklace,
given to me by my first boyfriend,
was treasured and cherished.

Perhaps, sharing equal billing with diamonds,
(the stone which just seems to happily enhance the pearl's own beauty)
the pearl would be the most romantic of all gems,
and certainly one of the most coveted.
Rarely out of fashion,
rarely out of place,
the lustrous pearl is as magnificent in solidarity as it is in multitude.

They have been admired and prized for thousands of years,
partly for their inherent beauty
and partly for their rarity. 

Unlike all the other birthstones,
pearls come not from deep within the land, but from the ocean;
formed by the hapless mollusc as a calcium carbonate compound
to protect itself from an irritant,
such as a parasite or piece of organic material
which gets caught when the mollusc opens for feeding or respiration.
All species of molluscs can produce a pearl,
but it is only certain species which create the type 
which we find so attractive.
The pearl oyster, which lives in seawater,
and the pearl mussel, which lives in fresh water,
are the two main species which are commercially harvested.

These pearls and mussels used to be caught by their thousands;
with each came the possibility of finding that elusive pearl within.
But the odds were small, 
with perhaps only one pearl found
amongst hundreds of molluscs gathered & opened.
And the chance of that pearl being perfectly round 
were even more remote.
Which is why these "natural" or "wild" round pearls were so valuable,
and worn only by royalty and the very wealthy,
from the Ancient Egyptians and Romans,
to the Queens of Europe.

From the late 19th century, 
people had realised that the pearl was formed by the presence
of an irritant, 
and many experiments were performed to replicate the spontaneous wild process.
But most of these resulted in misshapen lumpy pearls,
considered of little value.

William Saville-Kent, a British biologist working in Australia,
as the Commissioner of Fisheries for Western Australia in the 1890s,
developed a way to produce perfectly spherical "cultured" pearls.
Sadly, though, this somewhat tragic figure did not receive recognition 
for his successful experiments.

His work became known amongst other scientists,
and it was Dr Nishikawa, learning from Saville-Kent's work,
who brought the results back to Japan.
Dr Nishikawa's daughter married Mikimoto Kōkichi,
and the history of pearl production was about to change.

Mikimoto experimented further, 
patenting the process to create a perfectly spherical "cultured" pearl.
The first commercial harvest was produced in 1916,
and the modern pearl industry was born.

Conversely, "baroque", or misshapen pearls,
are now considered to be of exquisite beauty.
(In fact, I much prefer them - for each is different.)
How fashions change our perceptions of beauty and value! 

Being essentially a calcium carbonate compound, 
the pearl will dissolve quite readily in an acid, 
such as vinegar or wine.
For this reason, perfumes should never be allowed to touch a pearl,
while the oil naturally present on human skin
will protect, enhance and maintain the lustre of a sting of pearls.

The last group of pearls,
which are neither "natural" nor "cultivated"
are the "imitation" ones. 
They may be made from mother of pearl shell
(itself the very same compound as the actual natural pearl),
or glass, plastic or shell spheres which are then coated
in compounds of crushed mother of pearl, isinglass or mica.

Today, the South Seas beaded cultured oyster pearls are considered 
the finest in terms of beauty, value & collectability.
Farmed predominantly in Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines,
these salt water pearls are grown one per oyster,
producing pearls of large size and warm lustre.
The pearls harvested & grown by Paspaley Pearls in the warm waters 
of Australia's north are particularly remarkable for their size and lustre.
(When we lived in Darwin, 
a favourite spot was Paspaley's Pearl Museum on the harbour,
with a collection of very scary-looking old brass diving gear.
The divers must have been intrepid!
It is a most fascinating place,
should you ever visit this fabulous tropical city.)

Freshwater non-beaded cultured pearls,
where up to 25 pearls are grown per oyster,
and are generally smaller,
are mostly produced in China.

A pearl is valued by 5 indicators:
lustre, complexion, shape, colour & size.
They can be creamy white, 
the rarer naturally coloured grey or black
(from the black oyster or black mussel)
or artificially coloured.

A pearl of incredible lustre,
such as the one in this ring,
is a gem of such exquisite beauty that it is absolutely no wonder
that they are considered treasures, the world over.
And not just in June!

pearls of wisdom artwork blue fruit // cadbury ad 1970s //
all jewelery + all other images paspaley pearls


  1. Amazing post, Virginia. Such insight and research....I knew I loved pearls for a reason!

    You are such a talented writer and designer.

    1. thank you Carla! It takes one to know one, as they say!

  2. How sad about your grandmother's pearls!
    I adore pearls, my favourites being from Broome, after having worked there many moons ago and dating a pearl diver for a time. He didn't give me any pearls though. I guess that's why it didn't last!! x

    1. Ah, then you covet the paspaley pearls from Broome as much as I! What a meanie he was! And probably a sign of his true character, methinks, so you are better off without him.

  3. Oh Virginia I loved this story of pearls - knew a little before now I know a lot :) brilliant - thanks for that. And how sad about your grandmother's pearls - things like that are truly irreplaceable :) Have a great day sweet Virginia,

  4. Hello Virginia:
    Such lovely images in this very pretty, visually, and informative post.

    But we were so very sad to read the fate of your grandmother's gift of her pearls to you. Stylish thief or not!

  5. I am also so saddened to read about the loss of your Grandmother's pearls--you must have been heart-broken.

    You know how much my pearl means to me, so thank you for this beautiful post!!

  6. Fascinating piece Virginia! And how awful and sad it would have been to lose your grandmothers pearls in that way. And you are absolutely right - a girl will never forget receiving her first string of pearls. I received mine from my mother-in-law as a wedding day gift (one of the most wonderful gifts I have ever received). And only recently bought myself a set in Palma de Mallorca (pearls heaven).

    I think I need an excuse to wear some pearls this weekend. Hope you have a lovely long weekend (nearly there).

  7. Beautiful post Virginia ... but so sad to hear about the theft of your pearls. We had the same thing happen many years ago in Sydney and a lot of my jewelry was taken (not pearls) ... many that were sentimental and cannot be replaced. The thieves also had taken a suit jacket of my husbands (that was not noticed until months later when he couldn't find it!) ... how bizarre!

  8. Such a great blog!!! I love it!

    Would you like to follow each others blog via GFC and Bloglovin in order to keep in touch?

    Lots of love,


  9. Oh, Virginia, what a gorgeous post!
    I imagine how sad it was having your grandmother's pearls stolen.
    A beautiful ring with pearl and diamonds was given to my mother by my father when they got engaged.
    My mother, now a widow, gave this precious ring to my daughter when she got engaged and, like your necklace, my daughter's ring was stolen.
    Oh, my girl cried a lot! I'm sure no ring in the world will replace the one that belonged to her grandmother.
    These images are wonderful, thanks for sharing.
    Have a beautiful Friday.

  10. Good post and very well written, Virginia. Very informative and helpful. I like pearls, they are elegant, timeless and will never run out of style! Sorry to hear about your grandmother's pearls. I am sure they mean a lot to you.

    Gorgeous images as always!


  11. Not that I could or would wear any of this but a beautiful post nonetheless. I'm a little bemused - maybe because I'm a bloke who has go through life without having to buy jewellery (I still wear my 46-year old cufflinks) - as I thought moonstones were the gemstones of my birth month. When did the change happen? Have I been wrong all these years?

    1. No, you are not wrong at all! If you go back to part 1 of this post, it explains that June is a generous month because agates, moonstones AND pearls are all the birthstones for it. Lucky! When Tiffany published their poem in 1870, agates were the birthstones, but early in the 20th century they were replaced by moonstones and pearls. And over the last decades of the 20th century, moonstones were dropped from many lists to leave only the pearl. But in many countries the beautiful moonstone is still included. Personally, I would be greedy and take all 3, because they are all very fine and each would make gorgeous cufflinks. And I am most impressed that you still wear your 46 year old cufflinks. My husband refuses to wear new cufflinks (unless they have been hand made) and thus collects vintage ones. He has a favourite pair of moonstone ones which we found in New Zealand, made in the 1950s.


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