Classic, timeless and always a signifier of elegance, pearls are “the queen of gems and the gem of queens,” as Grace Kelly once observed.
Officially the oldest known gemstone and the only one created by a living creature, the pearl has long been a symbol of wealth, sophistication and power, with none of the overtly glitzy associations given to other precious gems. Indeed, before cultured pearls were created in 1893, pearls were actually rarer than diamonds, making them exorbitantly expensive and the preserve of royalty (or the gods): strings of oyster pearls were offered up to Chinese kings as early as 2300BC; Homer rhapsodised about the goddess Juno’s “glittering” pearl earrings in the Iliad, in 762 BC; and fragments of pearl jewellery were discovered in the sarcophagus of Persian princess from 420BC, which now resides in the Louvre.
European royals eventually followed suit and adopted their own power pearls. Catherine de Medici carried six ropes “of the largest pearls ever seen” when she travelled to France to be married in 1533; one was later given to her future daughter-in-law, Mary Queen of Scots, and ended up in the collection of Queen Elizabeth I (after she had her cousin executed). The Virgin Queen became synonymous with the gleaming white gems and wore them for countless portraits – suspended from jewels or ribbons and sewn onto her clothes – as a symbol of her purity and chastity, as well as authority.
Not that pearls haven’t had their rock n’ roll moments. Elizabeth Taylor almost lost the infamous 50.6 carat La Peregrina (one of the largest pear-shaped pearls ever found and a gift from her then-husband, Richard Burton) during a visit to Caesar’s Palace Hotel in Las Vegas. “I reached down to touch La Peregrina and it wasn’t there!” she later recounted in her book, Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair with Jewellery. “I glanced over at Richard and thank God he wasn’t looking at me, and I went into the bedroom and threw myself on the bed, buried my head into the pillow and screamed.” The nacreous gem was later found in her dog’s mouth.
More recently, pearls have been used by the world’s most powerful women to telegraph sentimentality, as well as style and authority: the Queen wore a triple strand of pearls from her beloved father, King George VI, to deliver her reassuring message that “we will meet again” during the UK’s first lockdown in 2020; and when Kamala Harris was sworn in as America’s first female Vice-President in January 2021, she accessorised with a custom pearl necklace by Wilfredo Rosado as a sign of solidarity with members of her university sorority, commonly known as the ‘Twenty Pearls’ – something she has done for public engagements since her graduation in 1986.
To attend the Earthshot Prize in October 2021 – her only red-carpet appearance of the last two years – Emma Watson chose pearl-embellished droplet earrings from Harris Reed’s collaboration with Missoma, complementing her upcycled outfit by the designer. It was a statement of sustainability as much as style.
“These are gems that possess a unique refinement, sensuality and strength that resonates deeply with the idea of matriarchal power right now,” says the fashion designer Prabal Gurung, creative director for the Japanese jeweller Tasaki, of the pearl’s renewed appeal.
In the hands of designers such as Gurung, Alessandro Michele and Simone Rocha (whose pearl earrings are worn by the Duchess of Cambridge), pearls have also shed their prim, old-fashioned connotations over the last few years and misshapen, asymmetrical and mismatched pieces are now amongst the most sought-after contemporary jewels. Even classic single and double-stranded necklaces (so adored by that famous pearl lover, Coco Chanel), are being adopted by modern tastemakers such as Harry Styles, Marc Jacobs and Rihanna, proving, as Jacqueline Kennedy famously noted, that “pearls are always appropriate”.
From Harper’s Bazaar UK