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Pearls: The Meanings, the Process, and the Types

Did you know that pearls are the beautiful byproduct of a defense mechanism developed by mollusks in response to irritants that have managed to make their way into their shell. This defense mechanism results in radiant orbs that have been harvested, coveted, and revered for centuries.

Various religions have referenced pearls in their texts. In the Hindu scriptures, pearls are considered to possess certain curative properties. Until the early twentieth century, a whole pearl was presented at a wedding where it was then pierced during the ceremony. Several deities were also associated with pearls, one such deity being Lord Vishnu, who wore a pearl that was believed to represent pure consciousness that shone in all luminous manifestations. It has been contested among scholars of Hebrew scripture that the term Yahalom means pearl, and that it is the stone that represents the tribe of Zebulun. In Christianity, pearls are often associated with heaven (the Pearly Gates) and used to represent things of great value. Islamic scriptures also exalt pearls, claiming that those who ascend to paradise will be adorned with pearls and also protected and guarded like pearls.

Essentially, pearls are minerals that are produced inside the shell of a living shelled mollusk. They are produced when the mollusk deposits concentric layers of a crystalline form of calcium carbonate around an irritant that has found its way into the shell of the mollusk. There are four different categories of pearls that a buyer should be aware of: natural, cultured, freshwater, and imitation.

Freshwater and saltwater pearls are formed in similar ways and appear to be extremely similar, as they are both formed naturally. The difference between the two is the source from which they are derived. Freshwater pearls come from a species of mussels that live in bodies of freshwater, such as lakes, ponds, and rivers, and occur in coldwater climates like Scotland. Saltwater pearls are formed in the ocean in pearl oysters, which are cultivated in protected lagoons and volcanic atolls.

Cultured pearls, on the other hand, are formed through a similar process, but instead of developing from a natural irritant they are formed from a piece of mantle tissue that has been transplanted into a recipient shell. Cultured pearls look nearly identical to natural pearls until X-rayed. Natural pearls show concentric circles, while the cultured pearls show an internal structure with a solid center.

Imitation pearls are an entirely different entity. Also called shell pearls, imitation pearls are human-made objects designed to look like natural pearls. However, some imitation pearls are made from pieces of mother-of-pearl, conch, or coral shell that have been buffed to look like a natural pearl. Imitation pearls are also made from glass or beads that have been coated with a solution that mimics the luster of natural pearls. Unfortunately, imitation pearls do not maintain their luster over time and dull significantly, while natural pearls do not.

Pearls come in a variety of colors, each with a different meaning. White pearls are traditionally associated with purity and spiritual transformation. Black or gold pearls are associated with riches and prosperity. Rose or pink pearls are associated with love, passion, and sensuality. Blue pearls are associated with courage, honesty, and tranquility. Green pearls are connected with balance, renewal, and peace, while yellow pearls are connected with creativity, happiness, and optimism.

Whatever the meaning of the pearl being worn, the wearer of pearls is participating in an ancient tradition of spirituality and royalty.