This precious gemstone is the birthstone for June. The origin of the word pearl is complex; it was originally called moravid in Persian and markarit in Armenian, which led to its Greek name margaritês or margaron, then its Latin name margarita which means “daughter of the sea.” This last name was chosen by biologists to classify a variety of pearl oysters—Pinctada margaritifera. It is also the likely origin of Margaret as a girl’s name. The Romans, alluding to the elongated shape of pearls worn in pendant earrings, used the word pirla, a slang word for pira, which means pear. Eventually, this was the term adopted by all the modern Latin languages that developed out of the legions’ slang.
It was said that pearls were the solidified tears of Venus and that they consequently preserved young brides from tears. Some claim that pearls make a young woman pure, and that they are a symbol of faith, purity and religious fervour. This is probably why they are so often given to girls at their first communions.
For the Ancients, pearls symbolized purity and innocence. They were dedicated to the moon and to Diana, the goddess of the moon. Young virgins accordingly wore them as a symbol of purity and chastity, and to call on the protection of chaste Diana.
The different colours of pearls had different meanings. Golden pearls symbolized riches; white ones, idealism; black ones, philosophy; pink, beauty; red, health and energy; and grey, thought. Dull pearls brought bad luck.
The pearl was the queen of gems until the beginning of the 20th century. Between 1890 and 1920, they reached prices never matched. People were crazy about pearls, and it was then that the fishing grounds of the Persian Gulf reached the height of their fame. The introduction of cultured pearls on the market around 1920 caused a collapse of the natural pearl market. Today, the natural pearl market is mainly a resale market, as very few are harvested anymore, even though they sometimes command huge prices.
A relatively modern gem, alexandrite, like the pearl, is the birthstone for June. It is peculiar in that it changes colour depending on the lighting. When seen in daylight or fluorescent lighting, its colour is in the green range. This may be green with a hint of blue, yellow, brown or even grey. Under incandescent light (halogen lighting or a light bulb), it turns a soft shade of red with a hint of purple, orange or brown. This unique optical property makes it one of the most valuable gemstones of all, especially in fine qualities.
The origin of the word alexandrite comes from the fact that the gem was discovered in 1834, exactly on the 16th birthday of Tsar Alexander II of Russia, which was considered coming of age at the time. Interesting coincidence: the colours of the stone—green and red—were the same as the colours of the Russian imperial guard. Alexandrite is very rare and among the most expensive gemstones. The determining factor in the quality of alexandrite is the degree of colour change. It should be very noticeable and show clear, distinct colours. The quality of the cut of the stone is also a factor. Large alexandrites (more than two carats) are very rare. Brazil is currently the largest producer of alexandrites.
* image courtesy the American Gem Trade Association (AGTA)