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Natural Beauty: The History of Pearls

In fashion, as we know, trends come and go. Statement items, on the other hand, live on forever. A case in point? Pearls.

 

The world’s oldest gemstone and the only one created by a living creature, the precious, glistening object has been around for thousands of years and, for just as long, been associated with power, status, and style — but also natural beauty, thanks to its flattering effect on the skin.

 

In ancient China, pearls were presented as gifts to royalty as early as 2300 BC. Similarly, pearl jewellery was considered the ultimate symbol of wealth and social standing in ancient Rome — so much so that Julius Caesar passed a law limiting the wearing of the spherical gem only to the ruling classes.

 

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1743-1744, The Banquet of Cleopatra.
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1743-1744, The Banquet of Cleopatra.

The ancient Greeks believed pearls to be the tears of the gods, while the ancient Egyptians, who had been using decorative mother-of-pearl at least as far back as 4200 BC, cherished pearls so much they were buried with them. But it was their most famous queen who best captured their love for the gems. According to Roman historian Pliny the Elder, Cleopatra wagered Marc Anthony that she could host the most expensive dinner in history to prove that Egypt had a heritage and affluence that put it above conquest. To prove it, she crushed a large pearl from a pair of earrings and dissolved it in a goblet of wine or vinegar before gulping it down. Amazed, Antony declined his dinner — the matching pearl — and admitted she had won.


Pearls’ alluring legacy continued through the centuries. Browse any art book, and you’ll see paintings of royalty bedecked with ropes of them, saints flaunting beautiful white strands to mark their loftiness, and gallant knights wearing them in battle as a talisman against misfortune. In Victorian England, seed pearls were used in mourning jewellery to symbolise tears.

Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Blake Edwards.
Still from Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Blake Edwards.

More recent history and pop culture, too, have turned pearls into a shorthand for class and refined elegance, but also a symbol of dedication and stability. Think of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s — the epitome of chic — Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor (who almost lost the storied 50-carat La Peregrina on a trip to Las Vegas).


Or pay attention to the wardrobes of every US First Lady since Martha Washington, including Jackie Kennedy and Michelle Obama; and the accessories of Queen Elizabeth II and Lady Diana, who wore the gem in all kinds of pieces, from tiaras to earrings, chokers and brooches.

Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy wearing pearls
Elizabeth Taylor: PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy Stock Photo. Jackie Kennedy: IanDagnall Computing / Alamy Stock Photo

So, while diamonds might be a girl’s best friend, pearls have proven to be their evergreen partners in style.


Fashion, of course, has played a crucial part in granting them such timeless charm. Coco Chanel was one of the first to use them on the catwalk (though hers were fake), making them an integral part of the modern woman’s look — one of her most famous maxims, after all, was ‘a woman needs ropes and ropes of pearls’. Dior, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga all reinterpreted the gemstones in myriad different ways through their accessories and collections, bringing pearls into the realm of casual attire and making them the most covetable item for career women and young debutantes alike.


Over the past decade in particular, pearls have surged again after a brief lull in the 1990s as a marker of panache, re-emerging in unexpected, sometimes bold combinations — and on a whole new demographic. The comeback is surely in part due to Dior’s 2013 Tribales earrings, which featured a gobstopper-sized pearl on the front of the earlobe and a smaller one on the back, and went on to become something of a cult piece. The pearl-encrusted jacket in the 2015 Balmain x H&M collection, had its role, too, in shedding the prim connotations around the gem. So did Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel and Alessandro Michele at Gucci (who sent a pearl balaclava down the runway on the brand’s 2018 Resort show).


And then of course, there’s been the pivotal work of the jewellery world’s greatest and brightest. From Cartier and Chopard to Van Cleef & Arpels and BVLGARI, heritage brands have been quietly modernising pearls through cool, bold reconfigurations of classic collections, creating contemporary pieces that have become highly sought-after.

Kamala Harris wearing pearls
Kamala Harris: DOD Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

A new wave of progressive pearl-wearers has followed suit. Among them have been female role models like Kamala Harris, who wore a custom pearl necklace at the US presidential inauguration; and poet Amanda Gorman, who flaunted a crown of pearls for her appearance at the Super Bowl in 2021. Emma Watson donned pearl-embellished droplet earrings to complement her upcycled outfit at the Earthshot Prize in October 2021.

Harry Styles and Shawn Mendes wearing pearls
Harry Styles: INSTAR Images LLC / Alamy Stock Photo. Shawn Mendes: WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Men, too, have been embracing pearls. Harry Styles led the way in 2019, when he attended the Met Gala wearing a single pearl earring by Gucci. And more forward-thinking gents have followed: A$AP Rocky, Billy Porter and Shawn Mendes have incorporated pearls into their outfits, breathing fresh air into the gem and bestowing it a whole new signifier — not just of femininity, but of a softer, radical notion of masculinity as well.


‘Pearls are always appropriate,’ Jackie Kennedy once said. As they continue to reflect style’s ever-evolving zeitgeist, the statement couldn’t ring any truer today.

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