The Evolution of Pearl Jewelry in Fashion

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For so long, wearing a strand of pearl implied superiority, a certain level of class. It was perceived as a gemstone suited for the wealthy—and if not, then for the upper middle class, at least. Sounds elitist? Well, yes, but it makes sense given its history. As the world’s oldest gemstone, the first pearl finding can be traced as far back as 420 when a fragment was found in the sarcophagus of a Persian princess. They were also reportedly presented as gifts to Chinese royalty in 2300 BC. And Julius Caesar evidently passed a law in the first century BC that pearls were to be exclusively worn by the ruling class.

It wasn’t until Kokicho Mikimoto discovered how to create pearls (aka cultured or farmed pearls) in 1893 that the stone became widely accessible (pearls created in the wild, or “natural pearls,” are incredibly rare and thus, very valuable). By 1935, there were 350 pearl farms in Japan with an output of 10 million pearls a year.

Still. In early modern history, pearls continued to be viewed as a status symbol. Coco Chanel and her iconic 1936 portrait featuring multiple strands of pearls draped over her shoulders is one such example. It exuded what she and her brand would come to represent: luxury. And when Audrey Hepburn played Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961, her portrayal of a wealthy socialite included a black Givenchy evening gown, opera gloves, and four strands of pearls connected by a decadent pendant. Even when Frances Sternhagen played Bunny MacDougal in Sex and the City from 2000 to 2002, she was never seen without her pearl necklace, which perfectly complemented her collection of Chanel skirt sets (and pretentious, old-money, super WASP-y attitude).

But Alber Elbaz changed all that. At the peak of his 14-year tenure at the helm of French luxury house Lanvin, he reimagined the stone and flipped its reputation on its head on the Fall/Winter 2013 runway, garnishing layers of grosgrain ribbon with imitation pearls and stacking them with chains and grand statement necklaces that spelled out “Love” or “Hot.” Suddenly, pearls were cool. “Not your mother’s pearls,” writers declared, as jewelry designers crafted their own unconventional versions in their vision. Phillip Lim strung a string of chunky pearls on a chain, the Pearl Collective studded them with spikes or presented them on sculptural hardware, and Cynthia K. Sakai of Vita Fede finished sleek opened-ended cuffs with mini pearls. The pearl fervor trickled down to high-street brands, and soon there was an onslaught of faux pearls in costume jewelry: deliberately oversized pearl cocktail rings, embedded midi rings, and decorative ear jackets.

The over-the-top edge (to compensate for the pearl’s “ladylike” reputation) has faded somewhat since. Now, it’s a little more considered, a little more inventive. Glenn Martens, whose ethos lies on pushing designs to the extreme, adorned the lobes of his models with enormous pearl-studded spirals for his Fall/Winter 2017 show.

For Spring/Summer 2018, it was all about baroque pearls in all their irregularly shaped, imperfectly grooved glory. Sonia Rykiel pieced them together to craft a collar-grazing necklace, Sarah Burton turned them into chokers and hung baroque pearls of varying sizes for Alexander McQueen, and Phoebe Philo gave them her trademark minimalist spin with simple mismatched drop earrings for Céline.

Perfectly smooth pearls also made an appearance: Erdem Moralioglu created statement-making cage-like earrings featuring pearls and birds for his namesake line and Pierpaolo Piccioli suspended orb-like pearls (studding them in the process) from two threadbare chains for Valentino, styling them with his ethereal gowns.

And more recently, Prabal Gurung also turned to pearls to accessorize his Fall/Winter 2018 collection, showing giant pearl ear cuffs and pearl waterfall-like earrings that cascaded from the lobe down to the shoulder.

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