Pearls of Wisdom ~ A history of the June birthstone

Updated: Jul 13, 2019

Derived from Juno, the Roman goddess of marriage, it was believed that couples who married in June would be blessed with increased prosperity and happiness. Since several traditions are based on ancient ones, it is no surprise that the idea of a June bride continues today. Pearls have become the go-to choice for most brides who choose to adorn themselves with the lovely gemstone on their special day. Traditionally, brides wore pearls because they symbolize purity, generosity, integrity, and loyalty. However, I think they just look darn good with a wedding dress.

While pearls are favored by modern brides across the globe there is an ancient history that accompanies the world’s oldest gemstone since pearls have been revered through oral tradition long before there were any written words. While it is unclear where the first oyster beds were discovered, it is known that pearls were coveted by royals and nobles for millennia. Pearls were considered so precious, and costly, that in the 1st century BC the Roman emperor, Julius Caesar, passed a law allowing only the ruling class to wear pearls.

Pearls were also extremely important to the Arab cultures where the Pearl trade became the gateway to large sources of wealth long before the discovery of oil in the region. One of the Arab centers for Pearl diving was on the tiny island of Bahrain. Located off the coast of Saudi Arabia, in the Persian Gulf, this tiny oasis was my home for four years as a child. There is a large statue of a large pearl rising up from the ground that is located in a prominent round-about in the center of Manama (the capital of Bahrain). The pearl divers would travel to the oyster beds in traditional boats called “dhows”. From there they were lowered on weighted ropes and would remain underwater for over a minute with only a nose peg to control their breathing.

In 15th and 16th century Europe the craze for pearls continued and almost all portraits had their noble and royal subjects dripping in pearl adornments. This Pearl-age began when an abundance of oyster beds were discovered in both Central and South America. The obsession with natural pearls lasted through the 19th century until the invention of cultured pearls by Kokichi Mikimoto. The son of a Japanese noodle maker, Mr. Mikimoto discovered that by inserting an irritant into an oyster the organism would immediately begin secreting a crystalline substance called nacre, which forms around the foreign object thus creating what we know today as cultured pearls. Natural pearls form almost the same way except the irritant is not manually inserted but randomly becomes lodged in an oysters sensitive inner body. Natural pearls happen so randomly that they automatically command a higher price because of their rarity. Cultured pearls, however, were created for the masses.

Higher-end cultured pearls still command a high market price so do not be surprised to pay top dollar for a lovely strand of matched pearls. Not only are you paying for the extra time it takes for a high-end pearl to develop but you are also paying for the time it takes for the designer to source so many pearls that are perfectly matched. In today’s pearl market one is still able to find natural pearls but they usually sell in the millions of dollars and can be found at auction or very high-end dealers.

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