Pearls, surprisingly enough, aren’t just useful for their good looks! In fact, they have been used in medicines for centuries.
The earliest report of this came from two different sources in the 13th Century. A German monk, Albertus Magnus, stated that pearls could heal mental diseases, love sickness, hemorrahage and dysentery. Alfonso the Learned, the King of Castile believed that pearls as medicine cleaned and purified the blood, and recommended it for fighting depression, or any ailment caused by sadness or timidness.
In the 17th century, an elixir called ‘Aqua Perlata’ was recommended for restoring strength and combatting fevers. It claimed to be almost strong enough for “resuscitating the dead.” This medicine contained pearls disolved in vinegar (or lemon juice). Once the pearls dissolved, fresh lemon juice was added, then the mixture was decanted into a new container where a touch of strawberry, rose water, cinnamon water, and borage flowers were added. It was sweetened with sugar as needed. It was recommended to cover the top of the glass when drinking Aqua Perlata, so as to not let any of the essence escape.
A substance called Gascoigne’s Powder was used well into the 19th century. The chemical make-up of it changed a few times, but it generally required pearls, crab’s eyes, and coral.
One legend states that placing a pearl in your bellybutton could actually cure stomach disorders.
Mikimoto himself, the man accredited with creating the process for culturing pearls, ate two pearls a day for his health.
But is all this “pearls as medicine” stuff really so crazy? In fact, pearls contain a variety of amino acids, proteins,and calcium. Concoctions such as Aqua Perlata likely worked because of the high content of Vitamin C in the juice and calcium in the pearls. And as for Alfonso the Learned’s theory, we can get behind the idea that pearls can fight sadness – our pearls sure make us happy!
Even today, pearls are still used in modern medicine. While it is not common in the Western world, countries such as China, India, and Japan have been using pearls medicinally for many years and continue to do so. Pearls that are lower than gem quality are commonly ground up and used as pharmaceutical calcium powder. “Pearl powder” is very common in Chinese medicine. Ground pearls are used as skin treatment to cure acne, reduce signs of aging, and even the complexion. It is also approved by China’s FDA for internal use, where the benefits are said to be that is builds up your immune system by preventing diseases, promotes tissue regeneration, improves vision, stops convulsions, and calms the mind.
You may want to think twice before gnawing on your strand of pearls, however. Oysters are filter feeders and these tiny animals are nature’s vacuums, cleaning toxins like mercury out of the water as they eat plankton and algae. These toxins may be stored up in their shells and in the proteins that make up the nacre of their pearls. While there may be some benefits to ingesting pearls, they might be outweighed by the ill effects. We’d recommend popping a calcium pill instead and saving the pearls for artful adornment.
The book of the pearl: the history, art, science, and industry of the queen of gems
By George Frederick Kunz, Charles Hugh Stevenson