Birthstone Friday–Pearls: Getting Fresh

This lovely freshwater pearl accented by diamonds and set in a 14k gold pin titled, “In the Cloud,” allows artist Eve Alfillé, to indulge her imagination. Photo by Matthew Arden, courtesy Eve J. Alfillé Gallery and Studio Evanston, Illinois.

Are you a June baby who doesn’t like her birthstone? Do you still think your only choices are your grandmother’s pearls—the Queen’s pearls—round, white and boring?

Nope. Not true anymore. In fact, if you like wild colors and shapes, take another look at pearls.

Pearls have always been found in non-round shapes and colors other than white, cream. In fact, when there were only natural pearls in the world—those made without the encouragement of a human hand—round pearls were the rarities. Natural pearls form when something gets inside a mollusk—say a small parasite bores through the shell—and irritates the animals tender flesh. They begin to cover the invader with nacre, the same material that lines the inside of the mollusks shell, and that we know as “mother-of-pearl.”

The coating process isn’t an exact science, of course, so the pearls formed could come out any color, any shape, highly nacreous, or utterly meh.

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Gemstone Care — Be Gentle With Your Pearls

If June is your birth month, and you love pearls (as I hope you do), treat them gently. Pearls are not as rugged as their crystal mineral counterparts. Made up of layers of tiny crystals of aragonite, they’ll scratch, fracture, discolor, and dissolve if not treated with loving kindness.

“The Nightlife II.” Freshwater pearls, peridot, tourmaline. Photo by Matthew Arden, courtesy Eve J. Alfille Gallery, Evanston, Illinois.

  • Never wear pearls when exercising; perspiration can attack them. They don’t like household chemicals, either. Never wear them swimming in a pool. (If Cleopatra’s pearls dissolved in wine, just think what chlorine can do to them.)
  • Don’t wear them if you’re doing work where they’ll come into sharp contact with hard surfaces. A bracelet constantly thwacking on a desk or filing cabinet can only harm the pearls.
  • Put them on after you’ve applied your makeup and perfume. Wipe them down with a soft cloth after you take them off to remove the pigments and alcohol that can damage them.
  • Store them in a soft cloth bag to protect them from scratching by the other jewelry in your box (drawer, suitcase, steamer trunk).
  • Give them a gentle bath, periodically, if you wear them often, and lay them out to dry thoroughly. Do not hang pearl strands up—the string can stretch.
  • If you wear pearl strands frequently, inspect them regularly, and have them restrung periodically.
  • Knots between the pearls protect them from rubbing against each other at the fragile drill hole. Knotting also prevents loss should the strand break. You’ll only be scrambling around on the airport floor looking for one pearl, not dozens. Because Mrs. Murphy says that if your pearl strand is going to break, it’ll break at the most inconvenient place and time possible.

Pearls: Born in the USA

Think pearls and you think Asian pearl divers and Japanese cultured pearls. Perhaps you think of Indian Moguls or rich belles dames from the glittering age of the turn of the century. But it’s a good bet you don’t think of the quiet backwaters of the Tennessee River. But you should. Pearls are an all American classic.

In 1954, John R. Latendresse founded the Tennessee Shell Company in Camden, Tennessee for the purpose of exporting American freshwater mussel shells to Japan. In Japan, the shells were shaped into beads to be used as the nuclei in cultured pearls; at one point, the company shipped as many as 23 tons of mussel shells to Japan to feed the booming cultured pearl business. Latendresse eventually became involved with importing Japanese and Chinese pearls and selling them.

Inevitably Latendresse became convinced pearls could be cultured in the waters of Tennessee. After all, many mollusks produce pearls and pearls had been found for centuries hidden in the meat of freshwater mussels. Native Americans found and treasured them long before Europeans landed on the eastern shore. Thousands of pearls of all qualities had been found as a by-product of the mother-of-pearl button business. If pearls formed naturally, reasoned Latendresse, he should be able to culture them, and in 1961, Latendresse formed the American Pearl Company to do just that. His daughter, Gina Latendresse, now president of the American Pearl Company, once remarked the location was “not the pristine, clear blue waters of Tahiti with half naked women diving for pearls, rather it’s the muddy rivers of Tennessee. A little bit less romantic, but maybe more intriguing.”

While the Mississippi River and its tributaries (such as the Tennessee River) and Kentucky Lake, contain an estimated 300 species of mollusks, explains Gina Latendresse, her father discovered that not all of them will allow pearl culturing. Only 24 species are viable, and “only one we tested out of the 24 was best suited to our needs.” The freshwater mussels’ anatomy was different than pearl oysters, so Japanese culturing techniques wouldn’t work, either. After studying the differences in anatomy, John Latendresse and his wife, Chessy, developed new surgical techniques designed especially for the mussels.

Although John Latendresse had developed good relations with the Japanese pearl-culturing companies, says his daughter, the Japanese were not happy to find out her father was trying to culture pearls. “They knew the southeast had lots of water and possibilities for pearl culture. They were a little fearful. They asked my father, ‘What are you doing? This is part of Japanese history and heritage.’ My father was quiet for a moment, then said, ‘Henry Ford was part of our heritage and history, but look what the Japanese have done with that idea.’ My father said later, ‘It was so quiet you could hear a pearl drop.’” After 20 years and five million dollars spent in research and development, John Latendresse harvested the first marketable American cultured pearls in 1983; two years later, he began cultivating on a large scale.

Then in the mid-1990s, says Latendresse, “We got a call…saying that the president of Mikimoto [the huge Japanese cultured pearl company] was coming to the US and was interested in seeing our farm.  Eventually, Mikimoto became our biggest customer of American cultured and natural pearls. My father said, after that first visit, ‘Never in a million years, would I ever have guessed that I’d sell the Japanese American pearls.’ The Japanese buying from us was the most fulfilling moment for my father.”

When Gina Latendresse visited Japan after that, she was surprised to find that the pearls were being marketed as an American product, with a brochure explaining where they come from. “The brochure talks about these pearls being from the Tennessee River, a tributary of the Mississippi, which the Japanese know.” She bought a set of earrings designed by Mikimoto and containing pearls from her father’s company. She wore them at her wedding and they are still her favorite pair of earrings. The American classic had come home.

Birthstone Friday — Pearls: Gemstone of the Senses

The very definition of sensuality. A strand of graduated, round cultured Tahitian chocolate pearls with 18 karat white gold, diamond-set clasp. Photo by Matthew Arden, courtesy Eve J. Alfillé Gallery & Studio, Evanston, Illinois

Pearls. The birthstone for June. The most sensuous, the most glorious, the most feminine gemstone of all. Other gems have to be fashioned in some way, but pearls are perfect just as they are. They’re exquisite water-borne gifts of seas, lakes and rivers.

Pearls are an appropriate choice for one of the most luscious months of the year. Breezes scented with flowers and damp soil. Morning skies delicately colored like pearls. The soft touch of blossoms like the skin of pearls. Pearls, too, gratify all the senses.

Pearls just glow. They’re not flashy, like faceted gemstones. They’re simply quietly commanding. In the white to cream-colored oceanic oyster pearls most of us are familiar with, there is a translucency, a sense that you can almost, but not quite, see into them. This is especially true of natural pearls, the now-exceedingly-rare gems that were found in the mollusks of the Indian Ocean. I’ve only been lucky enough to see these as tiny seed pearls in antique jewelry. And perhaps it was because of their tiny size, but they seemed to hold light inside of them, like the nacre surface was just a shell surrounding tiny candles. Continue reading

Birthstone Friday: Lab-Grown Emeralds

14k yellow gold pendant, set with pear-shaped Chatham-created emerald and small diamond. Courtesy

Emeralds are some of the most beloved gemstones in the world—especially by those whose birthdays are in May. However, richly colored, unflawed or lightly flawed emeralds are difficult to find and very expensive when they are found. So it was only natural that someone would try to do better than Mother Nature. In the 1930s, Carroll Chatham succeeded. Other growers soon followed.

As they grow in the earth, emeralds are subject to temperature changes, intense pressures, and impinging hot liquids that can burn, melt, crush, or corrode the stones. Violent mining methods don’t help. As a result, many mined emeralds come from the ground with a number of inclusions and fractures that can not only dull the beauty of the stones, they can weaken the stones as well. In fact, emeralds can be notoriously difficult to cut and set if they are badly included.   Continue reading

Birthstone Friday – Emeralds’ Bloody History

In 1558, the Spanish began drawing on the vast emerald mines at Muzo, Colombia, which produced high-quality emeralds. This style of cross, with large cut stones, was favored by wealthy aristocratic women of the Spanish court including Archduchess Isabella. Photo: The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

Birthstones often have swashbuckling histories, but for me, one of the swashbuckling-est is emerald.

I always think of Spanish conquistadores, those blood-thirsty, gold-hungry invaders of South America when I think of emeralds. They terrorized the native populations, tortured, enslaved and slaughtered them, and once they had their booty on heavily loaded ships, they were hunted by pirates themselves. Often those overloaded ships went down in hurricanes in the Caribbean. Some truly amazing emeralds have come up with divers to those galleons. Continue reading

Researching the Mystical

Gemstone crystals can connect us to the earth. But can they heal? Photo Somakram @

Gemstones have been attributed with a variety of mystical healing, protective, and self-improvement properties. But I was trained as a gemologist, learning all the “hard facts” about gemstones. However, I often want to use the mystical, magical, legendary properties of gemstones in my Birthstone Romances. For that background, I usually turn to two places. Continue reading

Birthstone Friday—A Taste of Emerald Lore

14k white and yellow gold ring set with Afghani emerald. Ring by Deborah Spencer. Photo courtesy Trios Studio, Lake Oswego, Oregon.

Of all gemstones, emeralds, because of their long history and rich color, have a wealth of wealth of lore and legend surrounding them. That makes it particularly fun to have emerald as your birthstone. They’re full of myth and magic!

Can the intense green mean anything else than spring, rebirth, and fertility? Perhaps not surprising that it was chosen as the birthstone for this month of almost overwhelming green in the season of fresh starts. Continue reading

Birthstone Friday – Emerald Dreaming

Sergei Kamenskikh via Dreamstime_xs_78932905 YG Emerald Pendant

Photo Sergei Kamenskikh via Dreamstime

If my mother hadn’t been in such a nesting mood and decided to wash walls in the weeks before she was due to deliver me, I would have been born in May, not April. My birthstone would have been emerald, not diamond.

Perhaps my near-May miss was why I always had a burning desire to own an emerald, although you can probably chalk part of it up to the Wizard of Oz and his Emerald City. When I first fell into the jewelry business, that was almost my first order of business: see and own a real emerald!

So it was with a crushing sense of disappointment that I saw my first emerald. It was kind of dull, yellowish green, not a pretty emerald green. And it wasn’t clear. It had stuff in it. I could not imagine what all the hype had been about.

Completely turned me off emeralds. I still watched Dorothy and friends every chance I got, but I thought the Wizard had a lot to answer for.

Since then, however, I’ve been privileged to see some breathtakingly spectacular emeralds, including some early stones mined and cut in Colombia that had lain drowned in the Caribbean for hundreds of years. (More on that another time.)

So I’ve reversed my opinion. Emeralds truly do deserve their place among the big five gemstones. (These are emeralds, rubies, sapphires, diamonds and pearls. I always include pearls although some don’t. In fact, in my book, pearls are probably the greatest gemstone in the world. More about that, too, another time.) However, the emeralds that earn that top spot have always been, and will always be, far beyond my budget. Although I can never own one, at least in the quality I would enjoy, I can and do enjoy seeing fine emeralds whenever I can.

For those lucky enough to have mothers who delivered in this fair month, enjoy your lovely stone!

Getting to the (Diamond) Point

Rough diamond octahedral. Photo Bjorn Wylezich via Dreamstime.

Rough diamond octahedral. Photo Bjorn Wylezich via Dreamstime.

Diamonds are best known today in their colorless cut form seen in countless jewelry stores. However, they look considerably different when they come out of the ground. They’re not always lovely in that state. But one interesting and common shape of diamond rough is the octahedron. It looks like two pyramids stacked base to base. (Well, actually, as you can see in the photo, they’re often kind of plump and rounded pyramids.)

But those points can be handy. Continue reading