Learning the History of Pearl Styling, Our Favorite Style Icons, and Tips How to Dress-up with Pearls

Learning the History of Pearl Styling, Our Favorite Style Icons, and Tips How to Dress-up with Pearls

Learning the History of Pearl Styling, Our Favorite Style Icons, and Tips How to Dress-up with Pearls
Pearls - always in style now, then, and forever

 In 1923, to win over her fiancĂ© Reggie Vanderbilt’s mother, Gloria Morgan – who would later give birth to designer jeans doyenne Gloria Vanderbilt – underwent a medical examination to certify her virginity. To the delight of the Vanderbilt matriarch, Gloria passed the test, and she and Reggie were invited to lunch at the Ambassador Hotel in New York. During the course of the meal, Mrs. Vanderbilt asked if Gloria had “received her pearls yet.” When Reggie confessed that he couldn't afford the kind of pearls Gloria should have, Mrs. Vanderbilt summoned a waiter and asked for a pair of scissors. She then took off the hefty rope of pearls that looped twice around her neck and hung to her waist, cut off a third – about $70,000 worth – and handed the freed strand to her future daughter-in-law. “There you are, Gloria,” she said. “All the Vanderbilt women have pearls.”

Gloria Morgan     
Gloria Morgan
The Vanderbilt women were famous for their pearls. Gertrude   Vanderbilt Whitney, Gloria’s  sister-in-law and the founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art, had a necklace that was estimated to be worth $600,000. It was a wedding present from one of her husband’s uncles, who was a member of the Payne family. 

Even today, we associate pearls with ladies. Diamonds maybe a girl’s bestfriend, but a string of pearls is the badge of a lady. Diamonds, with their hard-edged glitter, suggest a reward for services well rendered. Pearls, on the other hand, are subtle. Their unmistakable gleam is discreet, you can wear them to breakfast, it takes a pro to tell the real from the fake, and they carry an unmistakable whiff of old money, even if you bought them yourself with your first paycheck.  

Fashion designer Donald Brooks once said, “You can turn an absolute whore into a lady by just putting pearls around her neck.” That’s a bit of a stretch, but pearls are certainly a tried-and-true society prop – any time a character is supposed to come across as proper and traditional, you can be sure she’ll have a string of pearls fastened around neck. 

Like many ladies, pearls appear fragile but are really quite tough – provided they are properly cared for. They should be the last thing you put on before you leave the house and the first thing you take off when you return. Pearls react adversely to perfume, oil, chlorine, hairspray, and perspiration, so they should be wiped with a soft cloth after every outing.  Yet their round shape makes them incredibly resilient. One method merchants used to determine real pearls from imitations was to stomp on them. A fake would crumble, while a genuine pearl would roll away unscathed. 

The pearl’s faultless reputation stems from the fact that it is naturally perfect. Unlike diamonds or emeralds or sapphires, pearls don’t need any special polishing or finishing to look stunning; that’s just the way they are. This has made them a powerful symbol of purity and innocence, an association that is underscored by their watery origins. We associate water with renewal, and consequently, pearls are often given to a woman when she’s reached some sort of milestone: a eighteenth birthday, graduation, marriage, and the birth of a child. Pearls were as common in engagement rings in the 19th-century as diamonds are today, and the pearl is the gemstone for June, still the most popular month for weddings.

Pearl necklaces are classified according to their lengths, and the names tend to be rather romantic. A princess strand, for example, is between 17-19 inches long, while an opera one ranges from 28-34 inches in length. The most extravagant of all is the sautoir which is at least 45-inches long and often has hidden clasps that allow you to divide it into multiple strands or bracelets.  Alternately, you can wear it in a glorious fall, as Louise Brooks did in a famous photograph taken in the 1920s.  Pearls are a singularly graceful legacy, not just a possession but an emblem of femininity.

Louise Brooks, photographed in 1920s
Louise Brooks, photographed in 1920s
Whenever I do have occasion to wear my pearls, people are invariably drawn to comment on them. My friend’s uncle approached me in a wedding to tell me that I reminded him of his mother as a young woman. He related that she had a similar strand, and wore them all the time. There is something about pearls – their air of cleanliness, their association with femininity, their purity of color and form – that is very inviting. Pearls are high-status enough to be inspirational, yet familiar enough to inspire warmth.

Though pearls are commonly thought of as white, they can be any one a rainbow of colors, including red, pink, yellow and black. The larger a pearl grows, the more likely it is to be baroque, or irregularly shaped than spherical. The larger pearl ever found (Pearl of Allah), measures 9 inches across and weighs 14 lbs. It resembles a hard, glossy brain. Finding two baroque pearls that match is extremely unlikely, which is why perfectly paired pear-shaped earl earrings are especially prized.

When the production of nacre happens spontaneously, the result is a natural pearl. Natural pearls are so rare that only approximately one in ten thousand oysters will yield one good enough to use in jewelry. A pearl diver could spend a lifetime searching for enough matching pearls to assemble a necklace and fail. This scarcity made pearls specially prized and contributed to their great value. Today, only about 5% of all pearls sold are natural. These fabulously expensive specimens are usually snapped up by collectors before ever reaching the open market. 

The other 99.5% of pearls sold are cultured. The culturing process – by which an irritant is deliberately inserted into the oyster to prompt the production of nacre – was understood as much as 3000 years ago by the Chinese. Chinese monks made mother-of-pearls figurines of the Buddha by placing small lead figures of the Enlightened One into the oyster shells. But pearl culturing was haphazard and unpredictable until the process was refined by Kokichi Mikimoto in Japan in the 1890s. The technique perfected by Mikimoto continues to be used today. Basically, a tiny ball of mussel shell and a piece of tissue from another mollusk are implanted into an oyster. This tissue, called mantle, is what will produce the nacre. Once these two elements are inserted into the oyster, the creature is placed in a cage and returned to the ocean. After 2-3 years – or as little as eight months for the lower quality variety – the pearls are harvested. 

Kokichi Mikimoto overseeing the cultures pearl process
Kokichi Mikimoto overseeing the cultures pearl process

Only a trained eye can tell the difference between a pearl produced by this method and a naturally occurring one, but Mikimoto’s wares were rejected as fakes when he first tried to sell them. However, by the 1920s natural pearls were so rare that it took ma jeweler 10 years to assemble 63 matching natural pearls for a necklace John D. Rockefeller gave his wife in 1929. This depleted world stock, combined with Mikimoto’s determined campaign to make cultured pearls acceptable, eventually swayed public opinion. By the 1930s cultured pearls were accepted as real pearls, with Mikimoto cornering the market. Even today, when Australia, Taiwan, Myanmar, and China are also large producers of pearls, Japanese technicians dominate the pearl industry.

Imitation pearls date back to ancient times. The techniques for making them varied but the one that is still used originated in Paris in the 18th century. It involves mixing iridescent fish scales – today, it’s more likely to be a synthetic equivalent – with lacquer to make a liquid called essence d’orient. Glass beads are then dipped repeatedly into this mixture, which produces a luster comparable to that of true pearls. The punishments for trying to pass off fake pearls as authentic were inevitably harsh. In medieval Venice, for example, where pearl mania was especially pronounced, a merchant who tried to swindle a customer in this way faced the loss of a hand and a 10-year of exile. 

This stiff penalty indicates how highly prized real pearls were.  Cleopatra once placed a wager with her lover, Marc Antony, that involved a perfect pearl. She bet him that she could serve him the most expensive meal ever made. As dinner was served, Cleopatra removed one of her prized pearl earrings and dissolved it in a glass of wine (she must have dispatched a handy servant to grind it down first because wine will not dissolve a pearl). She downed the concoction, and then offered Marc Antony the other earring so he could do the same. Acknowledging defeat, he declined. According to Pliny the Elder, Cleopatra’s pearl cocktail was worth the equivalent of 80,000 Roman pounds of gold.

Others imbibe pearls not for showmanship but for good health. Mikimoto, for one, had to pulverized pearls for in a glass of vinegar every morning for breakfast from the time he was twenty until his death at the age of 96. Whether the pearls contributed to his longevity or not is unclear, though they certainly don’t seem to have done him any harm. Pearls are composed mainly of calcium carbonate, the same ingredient used in antacids, so if nothing else, Mikimoto’s daily treat kept indigestion at bay.

Marc Antony no doubt knew the value of the pearl Cleopatra had sacrificed, as pearls were very popular with the Romans, Julius Caesar even passed sumptuary laws preventing anyone below the rank of patrician from wearing real ones. This was intended to keep pearls on the necks and ears of aristocracy, but by the 1st century C.E., they were the most popular jewel in the far-flung Roman Empire.

Perhaps Ferdinand and Isabella, the pious Spanish monarchs who financed Christopher Columbus’s voyages, had such images in mind when they put pearls on the top of the list of goods they expected Columbus to bring back from his wanderings. But it’s more likely the greed played the dominant role in their orders. Like their peers across Europe, Ferdinand and Isabella were mad about pearls. They knew that whoever discovered a fresh source for the rare gems would make a fortune, for even then, demand far exceeded supply. His find set off a pearl frenzy that lasted for 150 years, a period in which more pearls entered circulation than at any time before or since. In standard conquering-invader style, the rush lasted until the Venezuelan pearl beds were completely depleted.

Elizabeth I
Elizabeth I - 16th century
Royal portraits of the 16th century offer ample evidence of the era’s love of pearls. Both men and women are covered in them. The ultimate royal pearl lover was undoubtly Elizabeth I of England, whose weakness for them is often alluded to in contemporary accounts, she once demanded that a noblewoman hand over her pearl-embroidered black velvet dress. But even Elizabeth could never afford as many pearls as she craved, so she employed a crew of seamstresses who did nothing but transfer pearls from one sumptuous dress to another ( she also reputedly rounded out her collection with fakes). Pearls were her personal emblem – a shrewd choice for the self-proclaimed Virgin Queen. Elizabeth never married, claiming that England was her beloved. In return, her subjects adored her. Elizabeth’s love of pearls grew in proportion to her power. A portrait of her at the age of 13 shows a young girl with a modest allowance of pearls. By the time of the Armada Portrait, painted in 1588 to commemorate British naval victory over Spanish, Elizabeth wears, in addition to the pearls covering her clothes and woven into her hair, eight ropes of pearls that reach to her waist. She looks every inch the triumph monarch. Clearly, Elizabeth understood the value of spectacle as a necessary tool of government.

As pearls flooded the European market, officials strove in vain to maintain their exclusivity. In Venice, the city government passed the law that specified that only upper-class women in the first fifteen years of marriage could wear them. When that didn't work, they resorted to more draconian measures, and demanded that all the ladies of Venice, other than the dogeressa, her daughters, and her daughters-in-law, hand over their pearls. Apparently, most women turned in their imitation pearls and kept the real thing for themselves, despite the harsh penalty for trying to pass off fake pearls as authentic. 
The middle-class acquisition of pearls was especially marked In Netherlands, which had a flourishing merchant class. Eager to demonstrate their wealth many of these prosperous citizens sat for portraits or commissioned portraits of their wives and daughters. What is probably the most famous pearl in art history was painted at this time (1669) in Jan Vermeer’s Girl with a Pear Earring. Her pearl is luminous drop that glows creamily against the dark brush strokes of Vermeer’s canvas. Other women posed with their pearl necklaces, as the Regentesses of the Orphanage in Amsterdam did for Adriaen Becker in 1683. Three of the four ringleted, soberly dressed women wear single-strand chokers; the fourth wears a double-strand one. All wear pearl bracelets, as well. They look so solid and respectable as a gathering of the Junior League, circa 1955.

The simple necklaces worn by the four women were typical of the new way of wearing pearls that arose in the second half of the 17th century. Rather than piling them on by the bushel, fashionable women wore a single, unornamented strand, a style that was probably due to the dwindling supply of pearls. By the time Marie-Antoinette posed for Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun wearing a single strand of perfectly matched pearls in 1785, the once-abundant Venezuelan pearl beds were a distant memory. Though a pearl necklace was still a status symbol, its fabulousness had been supplanted by the beauty of diamonds which, thanks to the development of more sophisticated faceting techniques, sparkled more brilliantly than ever before. 

Then in the 19th century fresh pearl sources were discovered in Australia and Tahiti, and pearls bounced back into the public eye. It was in this period, when ideas about decorum and appropriate behavior were especially strict, that pearls became inked with refinement, good taste, and other ladylike qualities. White pearls, with their virginal associations, were the only jewelry an unmarried woman could wear, and black pearls were considered one of the few ornaments suitable for a widow – the other was jet, which was derived from coal and was also black – after she’d completed her jewelry-free first year of mourning. Mourning customs have all but disappeared, but ideas about pearls and innocence have proven harder to dispel – even today, a 16 year old girl in a pearl choker wouldn't cause any comment; the same girl wearing a similar design in diamonds would raise eyebrows.

The Gilded Age, which began in the 1870s and lasted until World War I, was a spectacular period for pearls. In this pre-income-tax golden age, families such as the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers accumulated enormous fortunes. They used their wives and daughters to advertise their great wealth by covering them with jewels and outrageously expensive gowns. In an era that inspired the term conspicuous consumption, more was always better than less. A 1900 photograph of the wife of the financier Jay Gould, a former actress named Edith Kingdon, shows her wearing low-cut, tightly corseted white satin gown and three ropes of pearls that were estimated to have cost $500,000. But Mrs. Gould had nothing on Mrs. Mortimer Plant, who in 1916 persuaded her husband to trade their townhouse at the corner of 52th Street and 5th Avenue for a $1.2 million strand of perfectly matched natural pearls from Cartier. Cartier came out ahead on this deal: The beaux arts mansion still houses the company’s New York headquarters. After Mrs. Plant’s death in 1957, the necklace was sold at auction. It fetched less than a quarter of million dollars, as by that time the culturing process had made matched pearls much more common.

iconic women wearing pearls - Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Coco Chanel
iconic women wearing pearls - Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Coco Chanel

One of the pastimes of the rich in the Gilded Age was horse racing. Fashionable men and women flocked to tracks such as Longchamps, in France. It was here that Coco Chanel began her rise to social prominence – and very likely where she saw her first pearls. At that time, she was a poor, convent-bred orphan, just beginning her climb as the 2nd mistress of a wealthy playboy. He wasn't particularly lavish with his gifts, so Chanel didn't actually own any pricey jewels yet herself. But she had her sights set on bigger things. Since she scorned the overly fussy styles of the day, she may already had ideas about how she would wear pearls if she had a chance. Once Chanel did amass her collection, pearls never looked the same again. As Christian Dior put it, “With a black pullover and 10 rows of pearls she revolutionized fashion.” 

The pullover and pearls Dior refers to were famously photographed in the 1920s while Chanel holidayed in the south of France. The photo is the antithesis of the image of the lush Mrs. Gould. While Mrs. Gould is porcelain pale and padded with flesh, Chanel is deeply tanned and lean as a boy. The former wears a formal white satin gown, cinched in to show off a tiny waist and substantial breasts. The latter wears trousers and perches on the shoulder of a handsome young man. Moreover, Chanel’s pearls are an indiscriminate mix of priceless and fake. Every woman, Chanel said, should have ropes and ropes of pearls; if they were fake, well then, so what? It was the effect that mattered. Chanel wore a mix of real and imitation pearls with her little black dresses, with slacks, with the tiered gypsy skirts she designed in the ‘30s and the strict suits she created in the ‘50s. The effect was casual, chic, and very modern. As with her other fashion innovations, Chanel was iconoclastic. She transformed the popular association of pearls with privilege and wealth into that of an affordable delight for all women.

Genevieve Antoine-Dariaux

Over the course of the next 30 years pearls, true and false, were worn by women of every income bracket and taste. Eleanor Roosevelt wore pearls, as did Mamie Eisenhower. Debutantes such as Brenda Frazier wore them, and so did actresses such as Joan Crawford. Any list of the mid-20th century’s most stylish women includes habitual pearl wearers: the Duchess of Windsor, Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest, Grace Kelly, Jacqueline Kennedy, Audrey Hepburn – all relied on heir pearls. In 1947, Irving Penn photographed the 12 most popular models of the previous decade. Seven of this formidable elegant group wore pearls. Even the picky Genevieve Antoine-Dariaux, author of Elegance, gave pearls a thumbs-up: “The ideal necklace, the most universally becoming piece of jewelry ever created, and an indispensable accessory in every woman’s wardrobe, is a string of pearls.” 

But while Antoine-Dariaux was writing her book, the rules and customs that had made pearls so essential were losing their hold. By the mid-1960s, a girl was as likely to wear lovebeads as she was to wear pearls. The 1960s and 1970s were not a popular time to be a lady  Women, even those who owned pearls, talked about being women rather than ladies. In an ad for her extremely popular wrap-dress of the early ‘70s for example, Diane von Furstenberg posed in one of her creations and a sizable strand of pearls. “Feel like a woman, wear a dress” proclaimed the accompanying copy.

It wasn't until the 1980s that pearls regained some of their lost appeal, when the jaw-breaker-sized South Sea variety became a symbol of yuppie success. Julia Reid, writing in Vogue, called these “big girl pearls,” nothing like a demure 0.2-inch variety worn by white-gloved debutantes in the 1950s. South Sea pearls drew attention to themselves in a way that more discreet pearls never could; their value, for one thing, was unmistakable. In her Vogue article, Reid describes lusting after a $95,000 strand. First Lady Barbara Bush made this type of pearl her signature – though hers were expensive fakes made by Kenneth Jay Lane. South Sea pearl are still a status symbol among socialites, even young ones such as Marie-Chantal Miller, who has been photographed in these pricey jewels by celebrity portraitist David Seidner. She also wears pastel suits and in general projects a rather matronly air – not exactly the way most young women wish to appear.

John F. Kennedy, Jr and her wife Carolyn Bessette Kennedy   
John F. Kennedy, Jr and her wife Carolyn Bessette Kennedy
But in the past few years pearls have been seen on quite fashionable and youthful figures. Pearls were one of the few pieces of jewelry ever seen on the influential Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, a beacon of the minimalist style of the mid ‘90s. Well-groomed thirty-something actresses such as Reese Witherspoon make red-carpet appearances in pearls. Diane von Furstenberg’s wrap dresses, which have been adopted by a new generation, are being advertised with the original “feel like a woman” ads – complete with the pearl necklace. And Lucky, a magazine that catalogs fashion’s seasonal must-haves for a young, female readership, has run several stories about pearls. In February 2001, Lucky featured a pearl-buying guide, which discussed luster, surface and color. A year later, the magazine gave pearl necklaces to four young fashionistas and photographed the way they wove them into their personal style, which included denim corsets and tweed caps. “The ladies who lunch wear them with their pale suits, but matched with more modern pieces, pearls prove to be a totally unstuffy accessory,” the editors reported. In 2002, Rimmel, a British cosmetic line, unveiled a print campaign featuring Kate Moss wearing a chestful of pearls that, whether by chance or by design, bear a remarkable resemblance to those worn by Chanel in her groundbreaking 1920s photo. The ad ran in such cutting-edge publications as Dazed and Confused, a magazine whose name suggests its readers indulge in activities that would bring a blush to the cheek of a traditional lady.  And in 2001, the Chanel jewelry collection included a tough-looking, knuckle-duster pearl ring. All of this indicates that pearls are as popular as ever.

Tips How to Dress-up with Pearls
In the Philippines where these IT Girls are popular for their South Sea Pearls: Cher Calvin, Angel Aquino, Daphne Osena, and Amanda Griffin. Pearls from Jewelmer.
Tips How to Dress-up with Pearls
Even the young famous Filipina actress Maja Salvador (in her twenties) also photographed wearing South Sea pearls created by Jewelmer for the Mega Magazine May 2012 Editorial Page. 

Tips How to Dress-up with Pearls

Tips How to Dress-up with Pearls

Tips How to Dress-up with Pearls

Tips How to Dress-up with Pearls

Tips How to Dress-up with Pearls

However, as we ease into the 21st century, being a lady has taken on a rather different meaning. Etiquette books such as How to Be a Lady, The Fabulous Girl’s Guide to Decorum, and Things You Need to be Told, are filled with advice on behaving like one. According to these books, any woman aspiring to that title has to know how to negotiate a raise, handle a boyfriend’s request to watch porn, and make a killer martini. Not easy tasks. If you’re going to attempt them, there’s something to be said for having good string of pearls around your neck.

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  1. excellent piece, you've really detailed the history of pearls nicely. Great work.

    1. thanks! I'm so much passionate with pearls, it makes every woman so precious..


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