Skip to main content

ART CLASS : Pearls of Wisdom

Bettina Speckner, Pearl & Woods Brooch.

Ever wonder where the tradition of birthstones started? We know you have!

It is believed that there is a connection between the twelve birthstones, the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve months of the year, and the twelve signs of the zodiac. The belief is that the practice was for someone to own twelve stones and wear one each month in accordance with its zodiac sign. This way, the wearer would receive the therapeutic and talismanic virtues of the stones year round and when each stone would be at its fullest effect. The custom of wearing a single birthstone is actually only a few centuries old and in the early 20th century birthstones as we know them were standardized by the National Association of Jewelers (now called Jewelers of America).


Akiko Kurihara, Earring Necklace.

For the month of June we highlight the pearl, a gem not found within the depths of the earth, but one that is produced underwater within a shelled mollusk like an oyster or freshwater mussel. For most of human history (since at least the 13th century BCE), the only way to obtain a pearl was to dive to the ocean floor or river bottom and bring the mollusks to the surface. A pearl is a rare occurrence however, and divers would have to open hundreds to thousands of oysters to find one pearl, making them extremely expensive. The rare oyster pearl has been coveted worldwide for centuries and prized by many cultures, from the luxury-loving Hellenistic Greeks and Romans to the elites of Renaissance Europe.

Daniel Kruger, Pearl & Malachite Ring.

In Mughal India the wearing and appreciation of jewels was viewed as an art in itself; in his memoirs the emperor Jahangir (ruled 1605–27) recorded his decisions to wear certain pearls for important occasions. In China, where pearls are esteemed as one of the Eight Precious Things, the pearl symbolizes good fortune in the form of wealth and is considered auspicious.

By the early 20th century biologists discovered how to culture perfect pearls consistently. While now less rare and costly pearls are still highly prized for their beauty. They continue to be associated with value, wealth, wisdom, innocence, and purity.

The Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer and pearls are inextricably linked. Pearls appear in 18 of the 36 paintings currently known to be by Vermeer. He painted pearls so often, that it would be safe to assume that he was fascinated by them. Vermeer is the painter of what became arguably the most famous pearl in the history of art: the pearl worn by the girl in Girl with a Pearl Earring. 

Johannes Vermeer, “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” ca. 1665 (Photo: Mauritshuits via Wiki Art Public Domain)