June Birthstone: Pearl
14 Minute Read
What is the Birthstone for June?
The birthstone representing June is the pearl. Individuals born in June are truly lucky to be born in the only month with an organic birthstone, meaning that the gem is not formed over long periods of time in the Earth, but, by a living organism. Pearls can only be grown by a very small percentage of mollusk species which may live in either saltwater or freshwater environments. Each species produces a distinctive-looking gem that is characterized by a specific range of colors and sizes.
Pearls used to be an exceedingly rare gemstone. Their accidental discovery by divers foraging for food was a happy accident and any new gems sent noblemen and wealthy citizens throughout history scrambling to acquire them. It was only recently, in the year 1893, that Japanese innovator Kokichi Mikimoto figured out how to grow pearls in a process called "culturing". The newfound ability to grow pearls instantly made them accessible at a reasonable price point to individuals everywhere around the world and demand skyrocketed. Today, there are vast mollusk farms that take advantage of the few places in which pearl-bearing mollusks live.
In addition to being the birthstone for June, pearls are traditionally given to commemorate the third and thirtieth wedding anniversaries.
What is the June Birthstone Color?
The color of most pearls has a soft and inviting quality. A few gems may achieve bold colors which demand admiration, but the majority have a quiet and welcoming appearance that encourages you to take a closer look to appreciate their beauty.
Pearls are made from nacre, the substance that lines the shell of their parent mollusk, so their color will be the same as is displayed by the animal that grew them. Historically, the pearls found were white or cream-colored, which is the hue that most people associate with pearls. However, we now gather pearls from a variety of species that produce gems with a wide range of body colors. White and cream remain staples on the market, but gold, silver, black, and gray have become common. Thanks in part to creative breeding, you can find pearls in many hues from gentle pinks and oranges to exciting greens and blues. These hues may have a very light to very dark tone and a warm, but usually not particularly strong, saturation.
While the body color of pearls comes in hues which are delightful in their own right, many gems are supplemented by a translucent overtone color. Overtone colors are a secondary hue that twinkles over the surface of gems, providing a compelling multi-dimensional appearance. There are four colors that are most common for overtones: pink (which is called rosé on white and cream-colored gems and is considered highly desirable), as well as purple, green and blue.
There is a third possible color element that pearls can express called an orient. Orient usually only covers a small area on the surface of a pearl which shimmers with multiple iridescent overtone colors.
Natural pearls are gems that formed spontaneously without human help. These are very rare, typically have an irregular shape, and large gems can be quite costly. Most jewelry with natural pearls predates the culturing process and is sold by auction. As a result, much of what you will find when shopping for June birthstone jewelry are cultured pearls made by the same technique pioneered by Mikimoto. There are four primary types of cultured pearls which each have their own range of possible colors and sizes, so you are sure to see pearls that appeal to your preferences!
- Akoya pearls - These are the classic small or medium-sized white and cream-colored pearls that most people first think of when the June birthstone is mentioned. They are the pearls that Mikimoto nurtured and marketed to the world in matched strands, something that had previously been very difficult to do. They may also have understated yellow, brown, or green colors. You might be lucky enough to see a dark blue Akoya or an especially prized pink. In terms of possible overtone hues, there can be green but that pink rosé is greatly desired and will raise the price of a gem.
- Tahitian pearls - The Tahitian variety of cultured pearls can be larger than Akoyas and often boast dark body colors which are black, gray or rarely brown. You will also find yellowish-green, purple, and blue-green hues. These powerful colors are often modified by especially spectacular overtones which can be pink, green, blue, or purple. Some of the more popular combinations are described by tradenames. For example, the most sought-after type of Tahitian pearl is the peacock variety which has a gray body color with some blue or green that is paired with a pronounced pink or purple overtone.
- South Sea pearls - South Sea pearls are famous for their potentially giant size and shiny gold, silver, and white colors. There are also orange, yellow, blue, and cream bodycolors. These hues may be combined with blue, green, or pink overtones. South Sea pearls can grow to be so big because the mollusks that create them can be four times larger than Akoya-bearing mollusks.
- Freshwater pearls - This final category is the only major type of cultured pearl that is grown in freshwater conditions. There is a huge range of possible appearances for freshwater pearls. They can be any hue other than red, black, gray, silver, or brown and can be tiny or large. The potential overtones options are pink, blue, and green. Additionally, freshwater pearls have a higher potential to be grown in multiple shapes from perfectly spherical to baroque, meaning they have no symmetry. The unique shapes with crinkled surfaces have the potential to display orient. Because some freshwater mollusks can grow over a dozen pearls at the same time, freshwater pearls are an affordable option perfectly suited as a birthstone gift for people of any age.
There are a number of treatments that can alter the color of pearls. The most common is dyeing and this is usually applied to white or cream-colored Freshwater and Akoya pearls. Dyes can deepen natural colors, create rare and valuable hues like blue, gold, and pink, or achieve hues like red which don't occur naturally. The dyeing process is not necessarily intended to deceive buyers. Rather, it is commonly used to create low-cost fun, and vibrantly colored pearls.
Because pale pink and lightly colored Akoya pearls with a rosé overtone are considered so beautiful and valuable, many white and cream gems are exposed to low levels of red dye right after being harvested in a process called "pinking". As in most gemstone treatments, sellers must disclose if their inventory has been artificially altered. However, pinking has become so common that some producers consider it standard practice and do not declare it.
What Other Qualities Are Important for Pearls?
Color is not the only factor used to evaluate the quality of pearls. There are actually a total of seven elements that are taken into consideration to figure out how much an individual pearl, or a collection of pearls, is worth. The other six criteria are Surface, Luster, Nacre Thickness, Size, Shape, and Matching. Here is a quick overview of those factors and what to look for when shopping for June birthstone jewelry.
Surface describes how smooth the pearl appears. Usually, you want the surface to be as uniform as possible but some pearls have exaggerated characteristics that have a unique appeal. Luster is often considered to be the most important of the seven factors. It describes how well light reflects off the surface and the best pearls have bright and sharp reflections. Luster is partly influenced by how thick the nacre layer is. Pearls that are allowed to remain in their host mollusk long enough to accumulate lots of nacre generally have better luster.
The ideal size of a pearl depends on both its type and the preferences of the wearer. As a result, bigger may not always mean better. For example, huge South Sea pearls are considered exceptional while most prefer their Akoyas to be a medium-sized 7-8mm in diameter. A perfectly round shape is usually the most valuable option. However, pearls (especially Freshwater) can be grown in many exciting and unconventional forms. Because pearls are usually sold as pairs or in strands, how well they are matched to each other across the other six criteria contributes to their value.
Where Do Pearls Come From?
The mollusk species that are used to culture pearls can be very particular about where they live so pearl farmers go to the waters where the animals want to settle. Some species can only survive in a single location. They require stable conditions and clean water to remain healthy and produce beautiful pearls. As a result, pearl farmers are active environmentalists who champion unpolluted oceans and freshwater ecosystems.
Mikimoto cultured his Akoya pearls using the small mollusks which inhabit cool Japanese waters, but it turns out that these types of mollusks are happy in multiple locations. There are successful Akoya farms scattered around Southeast Asia, China, and Korea. They can even thrive in Mediterranean and Caribbean waters, as well as some parts of Africa. The Persian Gulf, which has been a rich source of natural pearls for over five millennia, can also support Akoya-bearing mollusks.
Tahitian pearls are newcomers to the global market having only been around since the 1970s. Their name is a bit misleading because the mollusks live around many of the pristine French Polynesian islands. Most are farmed in lagoons around the Gambier Islands and the Tuamotu Archipelago.
Many associate South Sea pearls with Australia which has immense ocean farms tended to by technologically advanced ships. They may also grow in the warm waters of the Philippines, Indonesia, and Myanmar.
While so much of the total pearl inventory in the world is comprised of Freshwater pearls, the mollusks who make them only live in China, the state of Tennessee in the US, and Lakes Biwa and Kasumigaura in Japan. However, China is by far the primary producer of these gems. In fact, the earliest version of cultured pearls which were stuck to the inner shell of host mollusks originated in China during the thirteenth century.
Aside from the four primary cultured pearl types, some uncommon species of pearl-bearing mollusks can do their work in other places. For instance, animals in the Mexican Sea of Cortez produce small numbers of lovely rainbow pearls.
What is the Meaning of Pearls?
Throughout their long history, pearls have been a symbol of wealth and luxury due to their rarity, elegance, and delicacy. Pearls are often associated with the moon due to their shape, color, and ethereal shine. Vedic texts consider pearls to be the daughters of the moon, born of the Earth's waters and heaven's powers. The reflective surface of pearls also evokes a likeness to water, with some legends depicting pearls as tears of the Gods.
People from around the world came to associate unblemished pearls with purity and virtue, qualities connected to a long and healthy life. Pearls were also thought to have a range of health benefits which ranged from curing depression, balancing the digestive tract, improving eyesight, and quieting muscle spasms.
East Asian cultures in particular bestow the pearl with significant meaning that ranges from granting the wearer wisdom, to providing good fortune, and even immortality. It was thought that dragons carried the gem with them, as is expressed by artistic renderings and images embroidered on clothes.
Are Pearls Durable?
Perhaps part of the reason that pearls are considered so precious is that they are a relatively fragile gemstone. The gem is considered quite soft with a hardness ranking of 2.5 to 3 on the Mohs Scale, so be sure that you store pearls in a soft cloth which protects them from rubbing against anything, even each other. The gem can be damaged if it is stored in a plastic bag or if exposed to chemicals. Also, the extra dry air in bank vaults can dry gems out if they are kept there for long periods of time.
The mantra with pearl jewelry is that it should be the last thing you put on and the first thing you take off. This means makeup and fragrances ought to be applied before jewelry is donned and pearls then need to be removed before you clean your skin. Gently wipe pearls with a damp, but not overly wet, cloth after each wear.
Despite these vulnerabilities, pearl jewelry can be adored and passed down by many generations if treated appropriately. One of the most famous pearls in history, the massive La Peregrina, was recovered from Panama in the 1500s. It was worn by royalty and celebrities and was most recently sold in 2011 for $11.8 million dollars!
How to Buy Pearl Jewelry
Thanks to Mikimoto's influence, a simple white or cream-colored pearl necklace is the first style of pearl jewelry that most people envision. For a time, it was a necessary part of every lady's personal collection. These strands are affordable and perfect as treasures even for young people.
The classic design can easily be modernized by using bigger or mixed-sized pearls with beautiful colors. Also, men have begun to reclaim pearls. Cultured pearls were initially marketed to women but, in the past, pearls were proudly worn by all.
A quick note about pearl strands… pearls can easily outlive their string. To ensure that your strands do not break, it is worthwhile to regularly have pearls restrung - up to once a year for jewelry that you wear frequently. Additionally, having strands knotted between pearls is a smart choice because it keeps the gems from rubbing against each other and, if the string does snap, only a single pearl should fall off, so you won't need to frantically search under furniture for stray gems!
Earrings are another easy way to wear pearls. Look for jewelry that features well-matched gems or, if they are intended to be different, make sure that those differences are apparent enough that it is obvious mix-matching is the design.
Pearl bracelets and rings can be absolutely showstopping but should be worn sparingly especially if they are expensive.
Frequently Asked Questions About Pearls
Emily Frontiere is a GIA Graduate Gemologist. She is particularly experienced working with estate/antique jewelry.
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