By  on October 8, 2010

Pearls are the only gems made within a living animal, and are also the oldest jewels known to man. Since ancient times, pearls have been symbols of purity, innocence and perfection, donned by royalty and wealthy nobles.

A fragment of the first known pearl jewelry, now on display at the Louvre in Paris, was found on a 2,000-year-old sarcophagus of a Persian princess.

"A pearl comes out of the oyster and is perfect, which is very unique for a gem," says Dr. Paula Mikkelsen, associate director for science at the Museum of the Earth and coauthor of Pearls: A Natural History. "It is the only jewel that is perfectly preformed."

In ancient Rome, crushed pearl was used to cure indigestion, while in Egypt, the dead were buried with pearls to signify riches in the afterlife. Among the Mayan Ruins, pearl fillings were found in human teeth. For centuries, Chinese royalty applied pearl powder topically to rejuvenate skin, heal blemishes and reduce redness. Royals also ingested the powder as an anti-inflammatory and to calm nerves. Pearl entrepreneur Mikimoto Kokichi, who lived to 96, is said to have ingested a pearl a day for longevity.

There are many types and varieties of pearls, the most valuable of which are the largest and most symmetrical. No two pearls are identical; in fact, the Latin word for pearl means "unique."

Found in both salt- and freshwater, pearls are created in the soft tissue of a shelled mollusk and are made predominantly of calcium carbonate, which is rich in amino acids and proteins. Generally the pearl's coloring—typically white, black, pink, silver or blue—is decided by the color of the animal that produced it. Pearls made without human interference are the most rare. In the wild, a pearl is created when something enters the shell of a mollusk, typically a parasite, worm, piece of food or sand. The animal protects itself from the irritant by creating a lustrous nacre-rich casing around it. After about eight years, the layers of nacre create a solid pearl. Cultivated pearls, which debuted in 1893 and take two years to form, are the result of the insertion of an irritant. Determining between a natural pearl and cultivated one requires an X-ray.

This fall, myriad beauty products harness both the pearl's luster and its skin-calming properties. Estée Lauder's Re-Nutriv Ultimate Lift Age Correcting Creme contains finemilled South Sea pearls paired with hyaluronic acid, while Dayna Decker's Hydrating Emulsion features freshwater pearl and gold to purify pores. Farouk's Lightweight Treatment includes vitamin B–rich pearl powder for hair follicle strengthening. La Mer's Illuminating Powder is infused with crushed pearls to disguise imperfections, while Lancôme's La Laque Fever Lipshine is formulated with a proprietary pearl complex that provides radiance and shine. Benefit's Girl Meets Pearl highlighter mimics the effulgent finish of a golden-pink pearl and Neocutis' prescription-only Perle Skin Brightening Cream lightens hyperpigmentation.

Most pearls today come from the Persian Gulf, along the coasts of India and Sri Lanka, and the Red Sea. Chinese pearls come mainly from freshwater rivers and ponds; Japanese pearls are found near the coast in saltwater. "Long ago, just a single pearl could have been worth millions," says Mikkelsen. "Pearls are ancient symbols of status and a new beginning."


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