Thursday, June 01, 2006

The lemonade of oysters

As this is June 1st, the month of the pearl, I decided this would be a fitting day to discuss one of my favorite topics: gemstones!

Referring to "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade", indulge me for a moment as I praise the lemonade of oysters.

Pearls. Beautiful, creamy white, luscious black, delicate pink, buttery yellow, oceanic blue... they come in a myriad of color and size. I appreciate them for their beauty, but it is their forming that entrances me.

To keep it short, an oyster gets a grain of sand in it's shell and can't get it out. (Or it is placed there intentionally to force the oyster to make a pearl). Now the oyster, irritated, begins to wrap the bit of sand in calcium carbonate until it is round, and it's size is determined by how long the pearl is left in the shell. Basically, man decides how large the pearl will be, because the oyster can't extract it on it's own.

Indulge me while I do a bit of comparison:

Now, while I do like diamonds - I'm certainly not going to turn them down when bestowed upon me -- I prefer pearls. Why?

1. oysters take something irritating and bothersome and make something beautiful and precious out of it.
2. diamonds - carbon crystals - are the most common crystal on this planet, occuring when said carbon is exposed to extreme heat and pressure until it crystallizes. And where does the carbon come from? Life. Well, more accurately, death, since all carbon-based lifeforms must die first to sink far enough into the earth to have the adequate amounts of heat and pressure to crystallize.

But it's not just some symbolic life creates pearls and death creates diamonds, although there is plenty of symbolism to be found there. And it's not just because carbon crystals - diamonds - are the MOST common crystal found on the planet. It's primarily the marketing of diamonds.

At the turn of the 20th century, diamonds hadn't really taken hold of the jewelry industry. In part, because the really good diamonds - gem quality or museum quality - were out of the price range of most people, and diamond bit drills, lasers, and most industrial uses for diamonds hadn't been invented yet, so there was this precious stone that was so common that it was being found laying around on the beaches of the world in its uncut state, and what ever was to be done with all the diamonds??

Make them valuable, of course. Commercial value was set by some jewelry insiders, to bring the lesser quality diamonds to the masses in smaller sizes and lesser clarity, and build an industry that has a use for all the less desirable diamonds.

In the age of Queen Victoria and before, an engagement ring was likely to be a sapphire (the world's second hardest stone, second to the diamond of course) because it was considered to be the stone of "true love" having the greatest connection to the heart (and you thought all that was "new age" stuff....) But it was also the blue stone that was reserved for blue blood; there was a time when simply having a sapphire in your possession could get you beheaded if you couldn't prove you were of royal lineage.

Well, it was out all of this gemological history,myth, fantasy, and reasoning that a few ingenius people created the diamonds' commercial value.

I say ingenius because here we are a hundred years later and little girls are raised to dream of large sparkling diamonds, and little boys are raised to believe that he is justified in his manhood in part by the size diamond he can buy his future bride, therefore they succeeded in brainwashing an entire world to a false intrinsic value to the diamond.

Ironically, a string of pearls is still considered an appropriate wedding gift from a groom to his bride.

Now the reason I don't have a pearl for an engagement ring is because it's much too soft a stone to be worn every day as engagement rings often are. And yes, hardness is a compelling argument for the diamond in this case. But I did mention that sapphires are the second hardest stone... (oh, and on that note, a ruby is just a red sapphire -- look it up if you don't believe me). My engagement ring is a sapphire.

People will often comment on how unique my wedding set is, but rarely take the time to let me explain why it is sapphires. So I took this chance to explain myself.

Now back to pearls... no, wait... that's it. Pearls are the lemonade that oysters make, whether they intended to make lemonade or not. Beautiful things, aren't they?

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