How the Pearl Transcended Jewelry to Become a Modern Icon of Fashion 

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Tiny mineral, huge legacy. 

Pearls have been trending for the past few seasons, but lately they’ve become even more revamped in the world of fashion, where not just a single strand of your grandmother’s pearls but all shapes, sizes, and iterations of the pearl have become covetable.

A model walks the runway at the Simone Rocha Ready to Wear Fall/Winter 2020-2021 fashion show during London Fashion Week on February 16, 2020
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Take for example, London based designer Simone Rocha, who put such an emphasis on the pearl as a motif that her Spring 2021 collection showcased multiple oversized pearl handbags (and ornate earrings) worn all at once. Chanel, Versace, Vivienne Westwood are just a few other labels that piled on the pearls for their Spring 2021 shows. And given the approach all of these designers have taken, it’s clear we’re firmly in a new era of pearls.

“Pearls have been growing in popularity for several years, perhaps dating back to the fashion collections of 2017, when houses like Celine, Balenciaga, and Gucci sent their models out on the runway accessorized with pearls,” explains Anthony Barzilay Freund, editorial director at 1stDibs. “They’ve slowly made their way back into the mainstream, with contemporary jewelry designers newly inspired by pearls that boast organic shapes, surprising textures, shimmering colors, and inventive embellishments.”

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Harry Styles attends The 2019 Met Gala Celebrating Camp: Notes on Fashion at Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 06, 2019 in New York City.
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And while a good number of the aforementioned designers can be credited as making the pearl cool again, there’s been an undeniable link to celebrities as of late. Freund links the recent surge in popularity to when Harry Styles wore one “perfectly imperfect pearl earring” at the 2019 Met Gala (the last before the pandemic). But even Cardi B has shown her love for the classic pearl by wearing pearl-encrusted dresses. And who could forget Kamala Harris’ signature pearl necklace, which many opted to wear around the inauguration as a sign of solidarity.

As it turns out, pearls have an extensive history that has touched nearly every time period of fashion. “Pearls are one of the world's oldest gemstones,” says fashion historian Rachel Elspeth Gross. “We know of a Persian princess from 420 BCE who was buried with them, fragments were found in her sarcophagus. There is documentation of Chinese royalty receiving gifts of pearls as far back as 2300 BCE. Both Byzantine Emperors and Julius Caesar passed laws declaring pearls were only fit for the ruling classes.”

 Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge views the 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer
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Likewise, pearls prevailed throughout the renaissance and baroque eras, with the subtle gem worn by the wealthiest class, as well as depicted in art. “A notorious English Duke, the Duke of Buckingham, was supposed to have had his pearls stitched so loosely onto his garment that when he wanted to make a grand entrance, the pearls would start cascading off him,” adds fashion historian Anne Higonnet at Barnard College of Columbia University. “In 17th century Dutch fashion, one pair of pearl earrings could be the big event. Witness Vermeer's The Girl with a Pearl Earring. Similarly, in Impressionist paintings, the most tailored Parisiennes would wear all dark wool—and pearl earrings. An example of this is Caillebotte's Rainy Day at the Chicago Art Institute—check out the woman in pearl earrings on the right-hand side.”

Paris Street in Rainy Weather (Paris, Rainy Day) by Gustave Caillebotte
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But even beyond that, pearls have been well-loved for the perceived meaning behind them. Many associate the pearl with purity due to its color and “Many cultures, across the globe, associated pearls with the moon, assigned them magical properties, and even ground them up for medical use and in cosmetics,” says Gross. For example, “In Victorian England, tiny seed pearls were worn as symbolic tears in mourning dress.”

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Consuelo Vanderbilt, the 9th Duchess of Marlborough, dressed for the coronation of Edward VII.
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Throughout time, too, the most well-known jewelers have all had their own moments with the pearl. “During the twentieth century, Tiffany and Cartier both had thriving businesses in the sale of real pearls, then known as Oriental pearls,” explains Freund. Major publicity surrounding Consuelo Vanderbilt’s pearl choker, acquired during her marriage to the 9th Duke of Marlborough, led to increased sales of pearls and higher prices. In 1933, Barbara Hutton’s father, Frank Woolworth Hutton, famously bought his daughter the Marie Antoinette pearls from Cartier as a gift for her wedding, the first of seven, which yet again caused a sensation.”

In the 1980s, the pearl reached peak popularity yet again. “Large South Sea pearls became increasingly desirable in the 1980s, and stands of these large (12mm to 19mm) pearls became major status symbols and investment pieces,” says Freund. “In high-WASP fashion, First Lady Barbara Bush popularized the affordable, costume jewelry version of these.”

Influential French fashion designer Coco Chanel, real name Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, (1883 - 1971) modelling a Chanel suit at Fauborg, St Honore, Paris.
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Even with all this in mind, the pearl as we know it retains a sort of timeless look. Designer Coco Chanel, for instance, was often seen throughout her lifetime in the early to mid 1900s wearing her signature strands of costume jewelry pearls, similar versions of which are still being made by Chanel today. Mikimoto, the premier perfecter of the pearl (In 1893, the founder, Kokichi Mikimoto, was the first in the world to successfully culture a pearl) just collaborated with Comme des Garçons in March 2021 for the brand’s second-ever fine jewelry collaboration. The necklaces designed by Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo feature Akoya Mikimoto pearls mixed with Sterling Silver accents such as fangs, studs, and safety pins. “Two things that never exist together in a design becomes one design,” Rei Kawakubo, Comme des Garçons said in a statement. Proof that the pearl continues to be one of the world’s most covetable accessories.