art by Rachel Anderson


From one of the humblest of life forms, the mollusk, comes the pearl -- a gem of unsurpassed beauty and elegance. Ancient civilizations had many stories to explain the origin of June's birthstone, such as the Greek belief that pearls were the hardened tears of joy that the goddess of love shook from her eyes as she was born from the sea. According to Arab legend, pearls were formed when oysters were lured from the depths of the ocean by the beautiful moon and then swallowed moonlit dewdrops. And the Ancient Chinese thought that these gems originated from the brains of dragons.

Pearls have been a passion and even an obsession of people throughout the ages. They have been ground up and used in cosmetics and as a medicine to treat heart and stomach conditions. Some cultures swear by pearls as an aphrodisiac. These gems have adorned crowns, clothing, and temples, and were said to be a favorite of Cleopatra.

There is a well known legend surrounding Cleopatra and Marc Antony. Cleopatra wagered Marc Antony she could give the most expensive banquet in history. On the evening of the banquet the dinner table was bereft of any dishes. Marc Antony reclined as Cleopatra sat with an empty plate and a goblet of wine (or vinegar). She crushed one large pearl from a pair of pearl earrings. The pearl dissolved in the liquid and Cleopatra drank it. An astonished Marc Antony declined his dinner which was the matching pearl and admitted that Cleopatra had won the wager. There is more to this story. Pearls were not held as valuable in Egypt but were greatly valued in Rome. The pearls had been given to Cleopatra as a tribute gift from Kings of the Orient before Egypt was conquered by Rome. Cleopatra saw no loss in this exhibition which was seen as the height of extravagance by Marc Antony.

Pearls are considered unfortunate for those in love and if worn by the married signified "torrents of tears". For this reason pearls are seldom used in engagement rings, even at the present day.

Amongst all nations Pearls have always been considered the most beautiful products of nature, but having their origin in a living organism cannot be called a precious stone. Among Eastern nations pearls are credited with the power of preserving the purity of their wearers, and as an emblem of maidenly purity. The Romans also set a high value on Pearls, consecrating them to Isis, and wearing them for her favours. Pearls were also made into a decoction with distilled water and given to lunatics to restore their reason. In China Pearls are powdered and taken as medicine for syncope and stomachic ailments.
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