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Pearls are the girl’s best friend

Axelle Loichot

October 20, 2020

A chic, timeless elegance: whether natural or cultured, pearls are a spotless companion for fall outfits. Multiple stranded necklaces, choker bracelets or drop pendant earrings, let’s discover more of this natural gem throughout time and history. Where do pearls originate from and how to wear them?

A chic, timeless elegance: whether natural or cultured, pearls are a spotless companion for fall outfits. Multiple stranded necklaces, choker bracelets or drop pendant earrings, let’s discover more of this natural gem throughout time and history. Where do pearls originate from and how to wear them?

1 – Iconic pearl lovers

Just mention ‘pearls’ – and famous images of elegant women immediately spring to mind: is yours one of Coco Chanel and her legendary long natural pearls necklace, Jackie Kennedy wearing a double strand of pearls at her neck or – perhaps cheeky Audrey Hepburn posing in front of Tiffany’s windows on New York’s 5th avenue? 

Regardless of the era, natural pearls have always been the perfect and elegant accessory for women, adding poise and a touch of subtle luxury. Ancient stories depict Queen Cleopatra’s games with Antony – the stake consisted in her tasting of her pearl earring – which she did, after the pearl intentionally bathed in a jar of vinegar – and dissolved. Later in history, all saddled with a zealous excess of pearls from newly found America, Queen Elizabeth I poses for a portrait. Her half-sister, Queen Mary I, enjoyed wearing the gigantic Peregrine pearl around her neck – the same pearl Elizabeth Taylor was gifted, and nearly lost in the 1950s. 

Because pearls are all about subtle chic and elegance, natural and cultured pearls were Coco Chanel’s favorites. She would wear the tiny yet numerous, bright and delicate round pearls with strict black dresses or tailored suits.

Out of a bizarre whim, Mademoiselle Chanel did not add any pearl jewels in her only “Diamond Jewels” collection released in 1932. Probably she kept that secret garden for her own pleasure.

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2 - Anatomy of a pearl

4 distinct families of pearl oysters can be identified, each referring to their location.

Pinctada Radiata, Gulf pearls, the historical cradle of pearls in Europe

Pinctada Fucata Martensi, Akoya sea (Japan and China sea)

Pinctada Margaratifera, black rim pearls from Polynesia 

Pinctada Maxima, the largest pearls from South Eastern Asia and Oceania (Philippines, Australia, Burma, Indonesia)

Natural pearls are the hardest to find and are the outcome of a nature hazard: a small irritant inserts itself into the oyster, hence generating a defense mechanism where the oyster will produce coats of nacre that will surround the irritant. The pearl is then ready to be collected – it will eventually become a glorious jewel. 

The cultured pearl know-how is the result of a Japanese technique developed in 1893. Mise, Nishikawa and Mikimoto manually inserted an irritant into the oysters, hence artificially generating the nacre coating leading to pearls. Such technique developed into a real industry with the setup of pearl farms – ultimately a new industry was born. Producers honed their technical skills to produce finer pearls, whereas clients in the western world organized the whole economical chain to accommodate large volumes of incoming cultured pearls.

Famous brands and industry leaders, such as Worms Paris, were a spearhead in the development of the pearl market. Likewise, professional structures were established to classify and guarantee the cultured pearls: GIA, CIBJO and Laboratoire Français de Gemmologie. 

The main criteria considered when assessing the quality of cultured pearls include lustre, surface aspect, shape (round, drop, irregular), size and nacre thickness (the thicker the better). These criteria will define the market value of pearls. The nuclei, natural pearl’s inner “heart”, is also considered as a value criterion. 

Beside the technical aspects, the countless delicate shades of pearls ranging from black, golden to green, pink or whites – are a real delight for sight. 

Olivier Lanciau, a jewelry expert at Sedgwick adds “pearls are the only gems used in the jewelry industry that require absolute no man-made treatment once collected. Unlike gemstones, they undergo no cutting, polishing or treatment whatsoever, their collection is mostly sustainable and harmless for the environment” Mine-free and drill-free pearls are used as is, the natural process underlines their little environmental impact – a probable reason why they have been used for centuries in royal jewelry and ornaments altogether. 

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3 – Wearing pearls today

Before caressing women’s necks and wrists, pearls sit in fine jewelry’s shops. 

Experienced jewelers value the timeless elegance of pearls, as they are the embodiment of transmission and legacy in western societies. However, pearls are versatile and nicely fit with contemporary designed pieces – young talents juggle and play with their cheeky features. Pearls provide a generational link that connects family tradition with today’s environmental stakes, an argument that ranks high with younger generations. 

Receiving a legacy pearl necklace as a family present may today seem inconvenient – however the piece may at will be upgraded into a modern gem thanks to designers’ craftsmanship and talent. Brooch, bracelet or earrings, Granny’s cultured pearls can be recycled and reworked – a smart option to rejuvenate family legacy with baggage.

Teragi Rambaud, a pearl expert with Rambaud SA and Worms Paris, also founder of L’ADN du Luxe, explains “the traditional pearl has many challenges to face in order to achieve its digital transformation. It starts with erasing its classical, posh image – we all know that Grandma’s pearl necklace has sentimental value, yet it is sitting useless in a drawer. Today’s lifestyle and dress codes have changed so much, designers should tag along with modern pieces highlighting pearls’ beauty while accommodating a fresh urban style. Working girls’ outfits today are made of jeans and sneakers, not tailored suits and stilettos like their mothers wore in the 80’s.” 

Wearing pearls, a style guide

Iconic, timeless chic pearls add poise to any plain outfit – gorgeous when paired with a little black dress or slim turtleneck top “à la Audrey”, they come with a twist when combined with vintage or urban pieces.

Classic pearls strands look unapologetic worn with jeans and a tee-shirt, and work wonders on bare skin, a crisp cotton shirt layered under a leather jacket.

While this article was all about pearls and girls, designers also open broader horizons with men designed jewels that include pearls to crack traditional codes “pearls get into men’s jewelry collections as an opportunity to go beyond the expected pieces” adds Rambaud. A limited collection released by Mikimoto featuring Parisian brand Comme des Garçons was a spot on example of pearls versatility and ability to play on both sides, girls and boys alike. 

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Chanel, Dior and Gucci remain paramount brands for legendary and timeless pearl pieces of impeccable chic. Worms Paris, Takasi highlight pearls’ minimalism and pureness in their modern designs. New designers such as Claverin, Esther Faris, Anissa Kermiche, Nathalie Vaucher Tempier and Aligheri showcase bold, yet elegant pieces, bringing pearls to a new and subtle creative level. 

A smile on Mademoiselle Chanel’s lips would certainly be the best reward to women today who share her secret garden and passion for pearls. 

How about your personal preferences? Diamonds or pearls?  

Would you like to know more about pearls? 

Photo crédit :  

Claverin :

Teragi Rambaud :

Nathalie Vaucher :

Anissa Kermiche :

Mikimoto :

Axelle Loichot - Le Sens du Détail - Conseil Expertise en Bijouterie-Joaillerie

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