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.
For thousands of years, ruby has been considered one of the most valuable gemstones on Earth. It is called the “King of Gemstones” and known as the stone of love. The gem is the red variety of the mineral corundum, and while any other color of corundum is denominated as “sapphire,” only red corundum may be called “ruby.” Pure corundum is colorless, but slight traces of elements are responsible for ruby’s purplish bluish-red to orange-red color. In fact, the name “ruby” was derived from the Latin word “rubens,” meaning “red.”
The finest rubies are an intensely saturated pure red with no overtones of brown or blue. They are readily available in sizes up to 2.00ct and have incredible durability, ranking a 9.0 on the Mohs Scale (second only to diamonds in hardness). Rubies may show very different shades of red depending on their origin, and the range of these reds is quite considerable. The gem’s intense color was once thought to come from an undying flame inside the stone, while other legends say each stone is a piece of the planet Mars.
Some rubies distinguish themselves with a wonderful silky shine, called the “silk” of the stone, which is created by fine rutile needles within the gem. The rutile mineral is also involved within very scarce “star” rubies. As can be found in sapphires, there is a translucent variety of ruby that displays a six-point star when cut into a smooth domed cabochon. Rutile is embedded in an asterisk-shape within the ruby, causing a captivating light effect called “asterism.” Six-ray stars appear to magically glide across the surface of the stones as they are moved. Star rubies are expensive rarities and should always display the stars exactly in the center of the gem. The star stone is said to be the home of each person’s angel, who lives there in contentment with the ruby’s spirit.
Rubies are found in many countries throughout the world, each location producing rubies of specific qualities and colors. Gemstone experts agree that the Burmese ruby is the most valuable and luxurious category of the stone. The former country of Burma, now Myanmar, is situated in a mountain valley surrounded by high summits. Rubies that are mined from this “Valley of Rubies” feature an exceptionally vivid red color with a slightly bluish hue. The stones display their unique brilliance in both natural and artificial light.
Rubies from Thailand, another classical supplier of the gem, are often dark red tending towards brown. This “Siam color” is considered almost as beautiful as the Burma color. Rare rubies from Ceylon are mainly light red, like ripe raspberries, while rubies of Vietnamese origin generally display a slightly purplish hue. Rubies are also produced in India, where relatively large ruby crystals have been discovered. These particular rubies, however, have many inclusions, but are excellently suited to be cut as beads or cabochons. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Russia have also produced occasional top-quality rubies, but the rough terrain in these areas has made mining difficult.
Top-quality rubies are quite rare and are often considered even more valuable than colorless diamonds, particularly in sizes above 5.00ct. High prices tend to reflect their tremendous value. In 1988, a 16.00ct ruby sold at auction for $227,301 at Sotheby's in Geneva, Switzerland. A 27.37ct Burmese ruby ring sold for $4 million at Sotheby's in 1995, which was an astounding $146,145 per carat.
It is possible that no other gemstone has been as prized as the ruby. Celebrated in the Bible and in ancient Sanskrit writings as the most precious of all gemstones, rubies have adorned emperors and kings throughout history. Until improvements in chemical testing in the 1800s, most red gem-quality stones were called rubies. Thus, many of the famous “rubies” in the crown jewels of Europe, including Britain’s “Black Ruby” and the “Timur Ruby,” have since been identified as red spinels or garnets. Today, rubies continue to decorate the insignia of many Royal Houses.
In the 13th century, traveler Marco Polo wrote that Kublai Kahn, the Mongol Emperor of China, once offered an entire city for a ruby the size of a man’s finger. In ancient Hindu writings, the ruby represents the sun power. In China, the stone was given as offerings to Buddha.
Rubies were also given as offerings to Krishna in India. For a long time, India was considered the classical country of rubies. Their literature offers a rich and varied knowledge of the stone that was collected and handed down for over two thousand years. In the Sanskrit language, ruby is called “ratnaraj,” which translates as “king of gemstones.” Whenever a spectacular ruby was found, the emperor would send out his notables to welcome the precious gemstone in an appropriate style fit for a king.
In the Middle Ages, it was believed that a ruby could change color and grow darker to warn its owner that danger or illness was near. Thought to ward off misfortune, it was believed to chase away evil spirits and the spirits of the dead. The deep red color of rubies has been used for centuries as protection and to convey invulnerability. Soldiers wore them into battle to guard against wounds and promote healing if they received a wound. The color of blood, the stone is symbolic of courage and bravery. Warriors were said to have implanted rubies under their skin to bring them valor in battle, make them invincible against enemies and ensure victory.
Rubies have also been historically thought to bestow wisdom, wealth and love. In China and Europe during the 10th century, dragons and snakes were carved in the gems’ surfaces to increase the flow of money and power to their owners. A common belief was that dreaming of rubies meant the coming of success in business and money matters. Rubies were also used to capture a mate and light the passion of romance. The gem was believed to have the magical powers of sexual fire and success in love. It has also been said by ancient lore to be capable of reconciling lovers’ quarrels.
When combined with gold and worn on the body, it is said that rubies can cause the body to rejuvenate and absorb energy from the sun to heal all types of body sickness and skin afflictions. It is believed that it should be worn with gold to banish sadness and bring joy.
Given as a symbol of success, devotion and integrity, the ruby is July’s birthstone and the traditional gift for 15th and 40th wedding anniversaries. Rubies have symbolized passion and romance for centuries, so when placed in engagement rings, they express unbridled love and promise of the heart.