If diamonds are a girl's best friend, pearls are a woman's most incomparable companion. Throughout history and across all cultures, these luminescent beauties have been revered for their natural allure. Nicknamed the "Queen of Gems," the pristine pearl has long held a place among the most valued possessions of a historical "who's who" of the rich and famous.
While pearls experienced a brief fall from favor due to flashier finds, these timeless treasures are currently experiencing a renaissance in the world of fine jewelry. Last month, a three-row natural pearl necklace netted a whopping $1.64 million at famed auction house Christie's "Important Jewels" London sale. But pearl-seekers need not fret if you don't have a cool million or two burning a hole in your pocket: more affordable options abound. In fact, industry watchers predict a resurgence in the demand for pearls, which have been spotted lately on celebrity necks from Angelina Jolie to Rihanna, as well as playing featured roles on the silver screen in blockbusters like The Great Gatsby. Lucky ladies born in June have even more reason to embrace this rising star of the sea: the pearl is June's birthstone.
Before cultured pearls came into existence a century ago, natural pearls were a prize available only to the world's most elite. From the Indians to the Arabs, the love for pearls has demonstrated no geographic bounds. In some cases, pearls are quite literally the stuff of legends: early Hindus believed that the pearl was a gift from the god Krishna to his daughter on her wedding day, while history books tell the tale of a Roman general who sold off a single pearl earring to finance a full military campaign. Cleopatra, the original glamour girl, once challenged Marc Antony to a contest to determine who could dine on the more expensive meal; she bested him by imbibing a single pearl, dissolved into her drink. While the origin of the pearl as jewelry is uncertain, historians have suggested that the jewel was likely first discovered along the coast of India by members of an ancient fish-eating tribe in search of their next meal.
For those wondering about what separates a natural pearl from a cultured pearl, the difference can be attributed to the age old distinction of nature vs. nurture. While rare natural pearls are created as a reaction by an oyster to an irritant that has penetrated its shell, clever humans--namely the Japanese, among them famed master pearl maker Kokichi Mikimoto--discovered a method through which an oyster could be coaxed into giving forth by introducing via grafting needle of a piece of muscle tissue, thereby triggering the desired pearl-producing reaction. Mikimoto's ingenuity revolutionized the pearl industry, and is a large reason why today's jewelry lovers can include the precious pearl as part of their own personal collections.