Pearl is the Birthstone for the month of June and the traditional gift for a 30th wedding anniversary. Pearls are one of only four gemstones (Amber, Coral and Jet being the others) that are organic, rather than mineral. Most pearls on the market today are cultured, freshwater pearls. This because naturally formed pearls are very rare (about 1 in 2000 shells might contain a pearl) making them rather expensive! They are both made of the same substance and take the same amount of time to create, but process that begins the initial life of a pearl is artificial, with a piece of shell being placed into an oyster.
Most people think that natural pearls are formed when a grain of sand gets inside an oyster or mollusc and as a defence mechanism, the shellfish forms a protective layer of calcium carbonate around the irritant. This layer of calcium carbonate or nacre continues to form over a period of up to seven years before becoming what we would recognise as a pearl. Most of this is scientifically accurate, except for that it often isn’t a grain of sand, but a tapeworm larvae excreted by other creatures such as sharks that is the initial irritant! Not quite as romantic sounding… The V&A (one of my favourite places in the whole world) had an exhibition all about pearls a few months ago and along with having some fabulous examples, debunked this particular myth. The V&A also made a fabulous film for the exhibition, which you can see at the bottom of this post.
I love using pearls in my jewellery; taking something so classic and universally recognised and incorporating it into contemporary pieces is a joy.
Pearls have been used in jewellery making for thousands of years and have always been a sign of wealth and status. A Roman general is once said to have paid for a military campaign by selling his mothers pearl earrings, Charles I wore a pearl drop earring when he was beheaded and one of the few items of jewellery Marilyn Monroe wore was a pearl necklace given to her by her then husband, Joe DiMaggio. But my favourite tale involves Cleopatra. She bet Marc Anthony that she could put on the most expensive dinner in history. Cleopatra proceeded to crush one of her pearl earrings into her drink and drank it. She offered to crush the other for Anthony. He declined.