Pearls are among the most valuable of jewels. Since ancient times people have regarded pearls as very desirable and precious. Large, perfectly shaped high-quality pearls are in the same class as some of the dearest gems, such as diamonds, sapphires, and the like. But pearls are quite different from gems. Most gems are minerals -"stones" - that are dug out from the earth; they are noted for their purity and brilliance in reflecting light, as well as for their hard- ness. A brilliant gem sparkles and shines with many colors resulting from the light rays it reflects.

But a pearl is not a stone found in the earth; it comes from the sea. It is created in the stomach of a living sea creature, namely, the oyster, as we shall see presently. A pearl is made of a beautiful, milky substance called mother-of-pearl, which is produced inside the animal's stomach. Pearls are therefore soft, and, inasmuch as they absorb as well as reflect light, they have a delicate luster of their own.

How Pearls Are Formed

When a grain of sand or other irritating substance gets inside the shell of an oyster, the animal covers the irritated part with many onion-like layers of tiny mineral crystals of mother-of-pearl. The mother-of-pearl layers are very thin and they partly transmit and partly reflect light. These many blended reflections produce the beautiful, delicate luster/for which fine pearls are famous. Black pearls are sometimes formed. They are considered very valuable because they are so rare.

In an ordinary oyster it is very seldom that a pearl is found. But in certain tropical-waters -in the Pacific Ocean near the shore of Southern California, and near the shores of certain islands, also in the waters of the north shore of Australia and near the shores of Japan, and especially in the Persian Gulf - live many so-called pearl-oysters, among which it is not rare to find pearls. These oysters usually live at a depth of from 48 to 120 feet. To get to the beds of the pearl oysters, divers go down to the bottom of the sea. They carry a net for scooping up the shells. The shells are collected in boats. Then they are unloaded on the sand, and allowed to remain there until the oysters inside the shells have died and decayed. Finally, the shells are washed in seawater and opened in search of pearls.

The chief pearl fisheries of the world are in the Persian Gulf; off the coast of Ceylon, India, and Burma; and among the Polynesian islands in the Pacific. American fisheries included those off the coast of Lower California, Panama, Venezuela, Colombia and Haiti.

Cultured Pearls

In 1894 a Japanese name Kokichi Mikimoto discovered and patented a method of making cultured pearls. This he did by implanting a small mother-of- pearl bead inside a living oyster. After treating the oysters in this way, they were placed in cages and lowered into the water. The oysters get busy covering the bead with five layers of mother-of- pearl, and in several years beautiful pearls can be "harvested."

Soon the Japanese developed a large industry of cultured pearls. They began to breed young pearl oysters in special cages under the water. At the proper time the oysters are taken out of the water, treated as above, and then returned to the water. In this way cultured pearls have been produced in the millions. Many of these pearls come out almost as good and beautiful as natural pearls, so that it would take an expert to tell them apart. Cultured have but a fraction of the value of natural pearls. Only the wealthiest people can afford a string of high quality natural pearls.

The dearest pearls are found in royal crowns and treasuries.

Pearls in the Torah

Pearls - peninim, in Hebrew - are mentioned four times in the Book of Proverbs (Mishlei), and once in Job (Iyov) and in Lamentations (Eichoh):

"The Torah is more precious than pearls, and all your valuables cannot be compared to her." (Mishlei, 3:15),

"Wisdom is better than pearls and all valuables cannot be compared to it." (8:11).

"There is gold and lots of pearls; but the dearest jewels are lips (that speak) knowledge." (20:16).

"Wisdom is more valuable than pearls." (Iyov 28:18)

And when the Prophet Jeremiah laments over the Destruction of Jerusalem and the Beth Hamikdash, he especially laments the loss of the "precious children of Tziyon (Jerusalem)... who were purer than snow, whiter than milk, more sparkling than pearls and sapphires." (Eichoh 4:1-7).

Incidentally, Peninah ("Pearl") is a fine Jewish name for girls. Peninah was the name of the second wife of Elkanah, the father of Shmuel HaNovi (the Prophet Samuel), son of Chanah. (I Sam, 1:2,4).

You may be surprised that a precious pearl should be produced by such a lowly creature as an oyster, which possesses a formless soft body with no bones or limbs. It hasn't got even one leg to stand on, or to move! But it is not really surprising. Strange and beyond human understanding are the mysterious ways of the Creator. He has seen fit to endow many a humble creature with an extraordinary talent, Thus we find a worm producing a fine silk, a bee producing exquisite honey, and many other such wonders.

Indeed, all the precious gems come from the humble earth. Our Sages remind us, therefore, that we should not be surprised to find the highest and greatest virtues most often among the truly humble people.