Pearl ~ June's Birthstone

The pearl is often called "The Queen of Gems."

A string of pearls has always been considered to be a staple of a woman's jewelry collection. Albeit it is often used to embellish other gemstone, it has a place of its own in history.

Cultured pearls were first created in the early 1900s. Until then, natural pearls were rare and so very expensive. Today, a 16-inch strand can cost between $500 and $5,000, but there is documentation that tells us that during the Roman Empire an entire military campaign could be financed by selling one pearl earring.

George Frederick Kunz, known by many as America's first gemologist, gives us the first scholarly account of pearls in his 1908 The Book of the Pearl. In the book, he writes of an ancient fish-eating tribe, perhaps along the coast of India, who appreciated the shape and luster of saltwater pearls. It's possible that they discovered pearls when in the oysters which they ate as food.

There are references to pearls in the sacred books of India, in China's, and in Egyptian writings which date back as far as 4200 B.C. It appears, however, that pearls were not used as jewelry until the fifth century B.C.E., during the Persian conquests. The Romans romance with the pearl was at its height during the first century B.C.E. Both they and the Egyptians valued the pearl above all other. Historical documentation regarding Arabs notes their love of pearls, specifically in the Koran, in which Paradise is, in part described as having "stones are pearls and jacinths; the fruits of the trees are pearls and emeralds; and each person admitted to the delights of the celestial kingdom is provided with a tent of pearls, jacinths, and emeralds; is crowned with pearls of incomparable luster, and is attended by beautiful maidens resembling hidden pearls."

Historical records indicate that originally pearls came from oyster beds in one of several places, the Persian Gulf, the coast of India, freshwater areas in China, coastal saltwater in Japan, Sri Lanka, and from the Red Sea. Once Columbus discovered the New World, Spain began harvesting pearls from Central and South America, the Caribbean, and the coats of the Atlantic and Pacific in Central America. The Spaniards used slave labor as pearl divers. Eventually, English colonists found freshwater pearls along the North America coast and, later on, in Ohio, Mississippi, and Tennessee River basins.

Soon, the United States became a worldwide exporter of freshwater pearls and mother-of-pearl buttons. Iowa soon became the center of the button industry and remained so until plastic was invented (during World War II) and mother-of-pearl buttons were replaced with their plastic "counterparts."

Kokichi Mikimoto, the son of a Japanese noodle maker, and his wife Ume, launched the cultured pearl industry when they "commercialized" their technique coax oysters to produce round pearls. Subsequently, Tokichi Nishikawa and Tatsuhei Mise each discovered the art of pearl culturing. All three used the same process, which consisted of placing a small piece of oyster epithelial membrane (the lip of mantle tissue) with a kernel of shell or metal into the oyster's body. The oyster reacted by forming a sack around the kernel. Then the oyster continued to secrete nacre around the nucleus. A pearl was the result of that process.

Mikimto and Mise merged their discoveries, a method that remains today. In 1896, Mikimoto got a patent for producing hemispherical pearls, or mabes, and a 1908 patent for culturing in mantle tissue. The result was that there were now pearls on the market that ranged in style and prices and made them more affordable to consumers.

Mikimoto made another discovery. Where Nishikawa had used nucleated silver and gold beads, Mikimoto tried other substances (e.g., glass, lead, clay, wood) and the best results he achieved turned out to be the process using round nuclei, cut from U.S. mussel shells. That process continued to be the basis for most cultured saltwater pearls for almost ninety years.

Pearls are an anchor in a woman's jewelry warddrobe.

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