Although a gemstone, pearls are different from every other stone. In fact, pearls are not really a stone at all. While other gemstones are mined for and then extracted from the earth, pearls are formed above ground; they are formed in oysters. Unlike other gemstones, pearls do not need polishing or cutting. Instead, the shining, smooth and brilliant surface of a pearl is formed naturally. As a result, pearls are often known as the “Queen of Gems.”
Throughout history, pearls were considered accessories that were preserved for society’s most elite. Considered the ultimate symbol of wealth and social standing, pearls were only worn by society’s top players. Although modern day pearls are often associated with femininity, both men and women wore them during the Middle Ages. In fact, high-ranking soldiers would often wear the gemstones into battle for good luck. In order to ensure that pearls were reserved for men and women in elite social standing, many European countries passed laws stating that only nobility could wear the beautiful gems. Unlike other gemstones that were prominent in only parts of the world, pearls were prized possessions across the globe. There are numerous stories of Queen Cleopatra playing with pearls and even wearing them. In fact, Ancient Egyptians were buried with pearls in order to bring wealth into the afterlife.
During colonialism and the discovery of The New World, pearls were discovered on the other side of the ocean as well. The Central American coast proved to be filled with pearl bearing oysters. However, the European demand for pearls was so great that the supply of American pearls was entirely depleted by the 17th century. It wasn’t until the 1900’s that pearl cultivation was discovered and implemented.
The cultivation of pearls began in the 18th century and ultimately led to a pearl market that was no longer solely reserved for the extremely wealthy. Essentially, pearl cultivation involves artificially implanting oysters. In nature, a pearl’s life begins as an irritant or piece of shell that accidentally wedges itself into an oyster’s soft inner skin. The oyster reacts to the parasite, or piece of shell, by discharging “nacre,” which is a smooth yet hard substance that continually presses against the pearl. As a result of the nacre, a smooth and iridescent pearl is formed. During artificial pearl cultivation, the irritant or piece of shell is implanted in the pearl in order to begin the process. Despite different beginnings, cultivated pearls are identical to pearls that naturally form. Even though pearls are no longer reserved for the noble class, they are still remarkable creations that deserve a cherished place of honor in every jewelry collection.