Sterling silver, also called fine silver, is a beautifully lustrous cool-toned precious metal favored in fine jewelry among other products. The most reflective of all metals (excluding mercury), sterling silver looks stunning by itself and brings out the best hues in an array of colorful gemstones.
Sterling silver can be polished to a higher sheen than platinum. In fact, Ag, the chemical symbol for silver, comes from a word that means “white and shining.” The surface of silver can boast that shiny, polished appearance, or can be brushed, satin, matte, sandblasted, antiqued or oxidized (chemically blackened).
In order to be called sterling silver, a metal must be made up of a minimum of 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% alloy (meaning other metals), including but not limited to copper and nickel. The alloy is added to pure silver to make the metal more durable, tougher and harder. Sterling silver is designated a fineness of “925.” Pieces with sterling silver may be marked “sterling.”
Minimize scratches on sterling silver by storing it in its own compartment in your jewelry box or in a cloth pouch. Sterling silver may also be stored in sealed polyethylene bags.
Often referred to as a gift from the sea, pearl’s origin has been an object of folklore throughout history. Early Chinese myths told of pearls falling from the sky when dragons fought. Ancient Persian legend said that pearls were tears of the gods. In classical times, it was believed that pearls were formed when moonbeams lit upon shellfish, while Indian mythology suggested pearls were formed when dewdrops fell from the heavens into the sea.
In truth, pearls are lustrous gems with an organic origin. They are formed inside mollusks such as oysters, clams and mussels when an irritant such as a tiny stone, grain of sand or small parasite enters the mollusk's shell. To protect its soft inner body, the mollusk secretes a smooth, lustrous substance called nacre around the foreign object. Layer upon layer of nacre coats the irritant and hardens, ultimately forming a pearl.
This process of building a solid pearl can take up to seven or eight years. Generally, the thicker the nacre becomes, the richer the “glow” of the pearl and greater its value. While pearls that have formed on the inside of the shell (called blister pearls) are usually irregular in shape and have little commercial value, those that are formed within the tissue of the mollusk are either spherical or pear-shaped and are highly sought-after for jewelry. Most pearls on the market measure 7.0-7.5mm in diameter, but can be found as small as 1mm or as large as 20mm.
Although some pearls are found naturally in mollusks (considered the most valuable), the vast majority of pearls are grown, or cultured, on pearl farms. To instigate this culturing process, a small shell bead, or nucleus, is surgically inserted into the mantle of an oyster. Despite the fact that pearls are harvested in great quantities on pearl farms, producing a quality pearl is an extremely rare event. It is estimated that half of all nucleated oysters do not survive and, from those that do, only 20 percent create marketable pearls.
Cultured and natural pearls can be distinguished from imitation pearls by rubbing them gently against the edge of a tooth. Cultured and natural pearls will feel slightly rough, like fine sandpaper, because of the texture of natural nacre. Imitations will feel quite smooth because their surfaces are merely molded or painted on smooth beads. Since nacre is organic, pearls are quite “soft” and rank only a 2.5-4.5 on the Mohs Scale. The gems are very sensitive and special care should be taken when wearing and storing them.
The value of a pearl is judged by several factors, and high-quality pearl strands should feature pearls well-matched in these factors: “orient,” the lustrous iridescence that’s produced when light is reflected from the nacre, should glow with a soft brilliance; the nacre’s texture should be clean and smooth, absent of spots, bumps or cracks; the shape of a pearl should be symmetrical and generally the rounder a pearl is, the higher its value; and although pearls come in many different colors (depending on the environment and species of mollusk), the most favored are those that have a rose-tinted hue.
Pearls are cultured in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors. Akoya pearls are the classic round pearls found in most pearl jewelry. They are mainly grown in the waters off Japan and are found in a range of hues, including white, cream, pink and peach. Mabe pearls are grown in Japan, Indonesia, French Polynesia and Australia. They are usually flat-backed and often called blister pearls because they form against the inside shells of oysters rather than within oysters’ bodies. Tahitian pearls are grown in French Polynesia and come in a range of colors, including gray and black with green, purple or rose overtones. Because of their large size and unique dark colors, they command very high prices. Also prized for their large size, white South Sea pearls are grown in Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines and other areas of the South Pacific.
Freshwater pearls come in various colors and are grown in bays, lakes and rivers primarily in Japan, China, Europe and the United States (Mississippi River). They are often irregularly shaped and less lustrous than saltwater cultured pearls, making them substantially less expensive.
Pearls have been treasured throughout ancient folklore and history. Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, considered pearls to be sacred. The Greeks prized the gems for their beauty and believed that wearing pearls would promote marital bliss and prevent newlywed women from crying. In ancient Rome, pearls were considered the ultimate symbol of wealth and status. The ancient Egyptians were buried with them and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra favored pearls immensely. It is said that while dining with Mark Anthony, she purposely dropped a pearl into her drink to demonstrate the wealth of her rule.
As early as 2000 B.C., pearls have been used as medicine in China, where it was believed to represent wealth, power and longevity. Even today, low-grade pearls are ground for use as medicine in the Orient. Arabs and Persians also believed it was a cure for various kinds of diseases, as well as insanity.
Long ago, when pearls were not cultured and thousands of oysters had to be searched for only one pearl, the gems were important financial assets, comparable in price to real estate. Some European countries even banned all but nobility from the right to wear them. Medieval knights wore them in battle as a talisman against injury, while warriors in India encrusted pearls into their sword handles to symbolize the tears that swords can bring.
Today, the pearl is a universal symbol of innocence and purity. It is the birthstone for June and is considered the traditional gift for couples celebrating their 3rd and 30th wedding anniversaries. Many believe the gem gives wisdom through experience, quickens the laws of karma and cements engagements and love relationships. It is also considered to offer the powers of wealth, protection and luck.
The largest pearl in the world is approximately 3” long and 2” wide, weighing one-third of a pound. Called the Pearl of Asia, it was a gift from India’s Shah Jahan to his favorite wife, for whom he also built the Taj Mahal. Another famous pearl is called “La Peregrina,” or “the Wanderer,” and is considered by experts to be the most beautiful pearl in the world. Pear-shaped and measuring 1-1/2” in length, it is said that 400 years ago the pearl was found by a slave in Panama, who gave it up in return for his freedom. In 1570, the conquistadors sent the pearl to King Philip II of Spain. The pearl was passed to Mary I of England, who gave it to Prince Louis Napoleon of France, who sold it to the British Marquis of Abercon. After disappearing for a century, the pearl turned up once again in 1969 at a New York auction house. It was purchased by actor Richard Burton for his wife, Elizabeth Taylor.
Aquamarine’s name was derived from the Latin terms "aqua” meaning water and "mare” for sea. According to legend, aquamarine was the treasure of mermaids and held the power to keep sailors safe at sea. Sailors carried it to stay in the good graces of Poseidon and ward off seasickness. Other folklore says that aquamarine was the stone of the sea-goddesses and sirens. Sea goddesses were said to cleanse the stone in the ocean water at night by the light of the full moon. Beads of aquamarine are even found in ancient Egyptian mummy tombs, used as a tribute to the gods of the netherworld for safe passage.
From the lightest sky-blue to the deepest sea blue, aquamarines are found in an exceptionally beautiful spectrum of blue hues. With its clear brilliance, deeper colors are unusual in smaller sizes since it generally takes a larger stone to hold a darker shade. The most prized aquamarines are those displaying a deep, intense, pure blue with no green tints. These are more rare and therefore more valuable. Unlike its emerald sister, aquamarine is known for being relatively free of inclusions with evenly distributed color. It retains excellent clarity, which is why aquamarines are frequently cut with large step facets to show off their flawless surfaces, immaculate transparency and high brilliance.
The different shades of aquamarine are distinguished by their names. “Santa Maria” is the name for the rare, intensely deep blue aquamarines found in the Santa Maria de Itabira Mine in Brazil. Similar colors are found in some of the sparse aquamarine gemstone mines in Africa, especially in Mozambique. In order to better distinguish them, these aquamarines are denoted as “Santa Maria Africana.” Not quite as deeply blue are “Espirito Santo” aquamarines from the Brazilian state of Espirito Santo. Another beautiful color has been named in honor of a Brazilian beauty queen from 1954, and has become famous as “Martha Rocha.”
Aquamarine is thought to possess a number of mystical properties, with powers that allegedly develop best if the stone is immersed in sun-drenched water. It is a stone of peace, joy and happiness, especially in the renewing of relationships. Its pale blue color arises sympathy, trust and harmony, all feelings that soothe and calm emotional fires or problems. The gem is said to re-awaken love in married couples or spark new friendships. In fact, carrying an aquamarine is supposed to guarantee a happy marriage and to make its owner happy. As a necklace, it is the most magically ideal gift for a groom to give his bride on the day of their nuptials.
In ancient times, aquamarine was thought to be capable of preserving youth and health. In magic today, this beautiful stone is worn or carried to enhance the utilization of psychic powers. Aquamarine can be worn as a magic charm to ensure good health, to halt fear and to strengthen courage. Because it is a cleansing and purification stone, it can be worn or rubbed on the body as a part of a purification ritual. Aquamarine can also be worn or carried as a protective amulet while sailing or flying over water. Fishermen, sailors and pilots have long made it their special amulet against danger. Other modern beliefs suggest the Santa Maria aquamarine makes the heart beat faster.
Now and then, sensationally large crystals are found. The largest known aquamarine is a 243-pound stone found in Brazil in 1920. It was cut into many smaller stones, and a 13-pound uncut piece resides in the American Museum of Natural History. Another noted aquamarine is an 879.50ct step-cut flawless sea green stone that is on display in the British Museum of Natural History. Aquamarine is found in many exotic places around the world, including Afghanistan, Angola, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Russia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Most of the gemstones available in the market today, however, come from Brazil.
Many modern designers have named aquamarine as their favorite stone, as its light color allows for a special creative freedom to bring out the character and brilliance of each stone. Gemstone artists get their inspiration for new cuts more often from aquamarines than from any other stone. These creative designer cuts have no doubt contributed to its high popularity. Aquamarine is the March birthstone and has become the traditional gift for 16th and 19th anniversary gifts. With an 8.0 ranking on the Mohs Scale , the stone is very durable and can stand up to everyday wear. It is the symbol for youth, hope, health and fidelity.