When we gaze at the beautiful pearl, one can’t help but wonder how this precious gem evolved into such a treasured accessory in many jewelry collections.
What is a Pearl?
When a foreign material is introduced into an oyster, the oyster begins to produce layers of a substance known as nacre around the foreign material This is a defense mechanism as the oyster tries to prevent the foreign material from irritating its delicate tissues. The multiple layers of nacre form calcium carbonate that builds a smooth coating around the foreign material and with time, this coating produces a beautiful pearl. The lustrous shimmer of a pearl is what sets it aside from all other gems.
How far back can pearls be traced?
It is unknown as to the origin of pearls; however, one can surmise that someone may have discovered the pearl when searching for food on the bottom of the seafloor. Pearls date back to Ancient Greeks. They viewed pearls as symbols of love and held true to the myth that Aphrodite and Venus emerged from oyster shells.
- Ancient history denoted that specific pieces of jewelry had a purpose. For example, a necklace was worn for protection to protect one’s soul from departing the body.
- Ancient Egypt adorned their buildings and clothing with mother of pearl. Mother of pearl is the inner layer of the oyster shell and was also fashioned (along with pearls) to create beautiful jewelry. Back in that time, when one wore pearls, it was considered a rare luxury and depicted wealth and status.
- Hindus, Hebrews, Christian and Islamic religions have embraced the pearl as a symbol of purity over the decades.
- The South Seas used pearls as a means of currency.
What presence did pearls have in each era?
Medieval Europe attached great symbolism to pearls. To many, pearls reflected wealth, nobility and royalty. Pearls commanded respect. Royalty’s use of pearls was not limited to mere pieces of jewelry but were statement pieces within the network of gems in crowns, scepters, clothing, accessories and even in medicinal and beauty products. It was not unusual for the house of the noble to serve a glass of wine with crushed up pearl.
It wasn’t until the 16th and 17th Centuries that the beloved and most rare of pearls (the natural pearl) was discovered by Western explorers. Natural pearls were rampantly depleted due to high demand causing imitation pearls to be fashioned from mother of pearl. The natural pearl was in a downfall as far as the ability to attain it.
Art Nouveau – The Art Nouveau movement in jewelry fashion came to life. These pieces were styled to compliment the pale color palette of Queen Alexandra. Varying semi-precious, translucent gemstones, natural stones, and enamel brought life to pearls in a way that reflected sophistication and style.
Edwardian – This is perhaps a very elegant time for the pearl as it adorned beautiful dresses and fashion accessories. One refers to this period as romantic and feminine. Fashion accessories used the pearl as a decorative element; jewelry, chokers, hair pins/combs, hatpins. The cultured pearl was also introduced during this time and would transform commercial production making them inexpensive and accessible to everyone. This was the next best thing to the natural pearl.
1920’s – Costume jewelry became popular while becoming less expensive to produce and purchase. Imitation pearls were being introduced to consumers as the cheaper alternative. Materials such as glass and Lucite were used to make imitation pearls. The finer side of pearls seems to have taken a turn for a less desirable level of quality.
1930’s – Costume jewelry continued to filter down to the masses as the Depression loomed. Hollywood glamour now set the tone for fashion leaning more towards diamonds and “glitz.” Pearls were no longer the choice of the fashion-forward thinking such as movie stars and the wealthy. The downfall of the natural pearl was demised as a result of the cultured pearl. Natural pearls are now considered the rarest of rare and fine jewelry.
1940’s – Wartime caused women to be thrifty with their money thus turning to costume jewelry. Forms of Bakelite, plastic and imitation jewelry appeared with a vengeance. Towards the end of the wartime, jewelry designers opted for fun and whimsy as the tone of fashion accessories. Jewelry became playful, less sophisticated, no longer symbolic of money, status or desire.
1950’s – Pearls come back into fashion as women were portrayed as innocent, elegant and feminine. Symbolic of wealth, purity and class, pearls adorned the necks and ears of many women. Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn were just a few movie stars that pearls were always associated with. The iconic 3-stranded pearl necklace of Jackie Kennedy was infamous with her classy style.
1960’s – Bright colored beads and plastic invaded the scene as women rebelled against the things that made any representation of feminism. Pearls were now considered old and stale.
1970’s – Pearls take back seat yet again as the subcultures try to identify with punk fashion.
1980’s to Present – Upper-class feminism slowly wakes up as pearls reappear. The mere suggestion of tradition is vivid as British royalty reclaims pearls as the choice of jewelry. Through Princess Diana, pearls are once again seen as aspiring and conservative.
Pearls are For Men Too???
Although it is rare to find a man wearing a pearl necklace in this day and age, you will find that men choose pearls as cufflinks and tie tacs. Pearl regalia was undoubtedly the fashion choice of historic men such as Rana of Dholphur and the Maharajah of Patiala. They did not merely choose to wear a few pearls, but lavishly adorned outfits that were covered in pearls. In those days, pearls were a sign of wealth. The bigger, the better to show off their nobility! Crowns of many kings past and present have pearls inlaid amongst the other precious gems as a sign of wealth and nobility.
What About Today?
Although pearls are not the choice of jewelry for the majority, it remains a symbol of purity. Weddings throughout the ages and still today do not disappoint us with the expectant pearls that brides of all ages choose to wear on their special day. We know the pearl is still beautiful, and a miracle of nature.