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.
The scientific explanation for natural pearls is almost as mystifying as folklore. When an irritant, such as a small parasite or a fish lodges in the flesh of an oyster, mussel, or clam, a protective substance called "nacre" is produced. Over years, layer upon layer of shimmering nacre coats the intruder, creating a lustrous pearl. Natural pearls are relatively rare, so a process evolved in which a piece of shell or bead was placed inside a mollusk to stimulate the production of nacre. This results in a cultured pearl, which accounts for about 90 per cent of the pearl industry.
Divers find natural pearls in The Persian Gulf as well as in the waters off Japan, the South Pacific Islands off northern Australia, and the coasts of Panama, Venezuela, and California. Most of the cultured pearl industry is in Japanese and Australian coastal waters. These gems come in a variety of colors, from pure white to pink, yellow, gray and black. They also come in different shapes and sizes.
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.
Only those with royal status once wore pearl jewelry, but eventually these gems were seen among all classes of people. They continue to be viewed as a mark of taste and refinement as well as a symbol of purity, and they are often given to celebrate a marriage or the birth of a child. Pearls are nature's perfect gift, suitable for all ages, and elegantly worn with everything from jeans to an evening gown.
June has two alternate birthstones. The first is Moonstone, a type of feldspar named because of its uncanny resemblance to the iridescent sheen of the moon. Varying in color from clear to blue-white or peach, it was considered by ancient civilizations to be a sacred stone, bestowing the wearer with great spiritual understanding. Some believed that the Moonstone could even make a person invisible! Mined in Sri Lanka, Brazil, India, Madagascar, and the United States, a gift of this stone is symbolic of health and longevity.
The second alternate birthstone for June is the Alexandrite. A yellowish or brownish green in color, this gemstone has the unique characteristic of changing color to a red hue when exposed to a glowing light source, such as candlelight. Because of this quality, it has been characterized by poets as "an emerald by day, a ruby by night." Alexandrite was first discovered in Urals in 1830 but is mined today primarily in Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Burma, Madagascar and Tanzania. It is a rare and expensive gemstone, symbolic of joy and good fortune.