The following article was written in the famous English publication The Telegraph and gives us a wonderful insight in the richness of pearls! There is no doubt in my mind that this alluring gem will never go out of style, but it is a good reminder that one can never have enough pearls!
This eternally alluring gem, which is enjoying a surge in popularity and price, has a rich cultural and historical significance.
By Anne de Courcy
7:00AM BST 16 May 2014
Pearls are now preferred to diamonds – if the recent sales in auction houses are anything to go by. Last month at Bonhams, renowned for its jewellery sales, a solitaire pearl ring sold for £30,000 (10 times its upper estimate) while a pair of diamond and pearl earrings and a long string of graduated pearls both sold at double their estimate at £290,000 and £87,600 respectively.
As a pearl aficionada, I can’t say I’m surprised at this resurgence in popularity. Quite apart from their flattering effect on the complexion and their go-with-anything charm, one only has to think of their history, their glamour, their mystique, their beauty, and the extraordinary way they can draw attention to a facet of the persona. Nothing could have been as economical and effective a way of displaying unbounded wealth as Cleopatra dissolving her pearl earring in a glass of vinegar.
We, of course, tend to associate pearls with the Season, that ritual of the well-born that launched young women into adulthood and, with luck, towards a suitable husband. Then, a string of pearls was a father’s traditional present to his daughter to mark her 18th birthday – pearls that would be seen around every throat rising from the traditional white dress of the debutante.
So well established was this custom that when Violet Asquith, daughter of the future Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, came out in 1905, and her rich step-grandfather, who gave a ball for her, presented her with a diamond necklace, she was not overly pleased at this extravagantly generous gift, commenting later that it “made me feel conspicuous as everyone else had pearls”.
Indeed, for almost a hundred years, the magazine Country Life featured the portrait of a young woman invariably wearing her pearl necklace as its frontispiece. These “Girls in Pearls” photographs became the most famous glossy magazine feature of the 20th century. In other words, pearls were “safe”.
The link with purity – the reason behind the virginal necklace given to debutantes – lingered. When the suffragettes were fighting their battles for the right of women to vote, their colours were purple, green and white, signifying dignity, hope and purity. Many of these women were from the upper classes; those who wished to show where their sympathies lay wore jewellery of amethysts, emeralds – and pearls.
For a long time, then, pearls were thought of as a badge of respectability, almost of authority – think Mrs Thatcher, think Michelle Obama – rather than the exotic and fascinating jewels that they are.
But far from being the province of the ingénue, or of the elderly maiden aunt or sensible matron, pearls have moved on – or perhaps I should say moved back to what they once were. Women like Sarah Jessica Parker prize them, as do Mariah Carey, Rita Ora and Rihanna.
Pearls can ooze sophistication. Who can forget Princess Diana’s multi-strand pearl choker, with huge sapphire clasp worn above a decolletée black dress, or Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly and her ensemble of streaky blonde hair, dark glasses and pearl earrings? Or the words of Dorothy Parker: “When I’m cold I just put another rope of pearls on.”
Russian Grand Dukes swathed their opera singer mistresses in pearls, Belle Epoque courtesans evaluated their lovers by the length and lustre of the ropes of pearls with which they adorned them. Women in the Twenties and Thirties wore long strings of them, some, like Coco Chanel, even with their bathing dresses.
Pearls for the sirens of the film world spelt something else again – not a tally of the economic and romantic status of their lovers but a symbol of their sexual appeal. Women such as Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe used them almost as an extension of their earthy, sensual allure. Taylor’s famous “La Peregrina” pearl was given to her as a Valentine’s gift by her husband Richard Burton, its own dramatic history – which spans almost 500 years, having belonged to various queens of Europe – rivalling that of the Burtons’ tempestuous relationship. At one point Taylor lost it (“I went into the bedroom, buried my head in the pillow, and screamed”) only to find her puppy chewing on it.
Last September’s Pearl Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum gave pearls another push forward, with its display of wonderful bracelets, necklaces, diadems and rings by jewellers such as Cartier, Tiffany and Lalique.
Historically, of course, pearls have always been prized. The Romans loved them, and in medieval Europe they were signifiers of authority on royal regalia, symbolising purity and chastity, though by the Renaissance they had become largely ornamental – adornments that nevertheless showed you were a person of wealth and consequence.
Kings and Queens have always worn them, some to iconic effect. The late Queen Mary, grandmother of our present Queen, was so draped in them that sometimes it was difficult to see the colour of her ankle-length dresses. The Queen is seldom seen without a double strand of pearls; Camilla also favours them and now the Duchess of Cambridge is putting the younger generation’s stamp on them with the simple pearl earrings she wore on her recent Australasian tour.
Not that the allure of pearls is confined to women; men were fascinated by them, too. Vermeer used them in no less than 11 of his 35 (known) paintings, most notably in his Girl with a Pearl Earring. Her “tear drop” earring appears in eight of them. Queen Elizabeth I’s courtiers had no hesitation in having pearls sewn on everything from doublets to gloves. In the days of the Raj, Indian rulers, owners of vast treasure chests of gems, draped themselves un-selfconsciously in great ropes of pearls for a formal dinner at Viceregal Lodge.
For the imaginative, pearls can be a metaphor – for the changing of an irritant into a thing of beauty and, by extension, how to turn a misfortune into something beneficent. Formed when a scrap of grit, a parasite, a bit of broken shell, enters an unwary oyster’s shell, the final, exquisite, gleaming pearl is the result of layer upon layer of a substance known as nacre, secreted by the oyster and wrapped round the foreign body to prevent further damage to the oyster’s soft tissues.
The reason for the lustre and iridescence that are a (real) pearl’s distinguishing features is the reflection of light through these layers, all of them translucent. It reflects – the best pearls are almost mirror-like – but you cannot, as you can with a diamond, ruby or sapphire, gaze into its depths.
Nor can you cut it and shape it as you can with other gems. A pearl is sui generis – a treasure grown inside a living creature that comes from the sea rather than being mined from the land. As searching for it in the wild is such a hit-and-miss business – literally hundreds of oysters have to be opened before one is found with a pearl – pearls have always been expensive, so much so that the 20th century saw the emergence of the cultured pearl – a pearl into which an irritant was artificially introduced. The first commercial crop came in 1928.
Again unlike other jewels a pearl is still a “living” organism. That is to say, the layers of nacre of which a pearl is composed are absorbent, so that external factors can influence their condition and even colour. Thus they improve with wear, picking up faint traces of oil from your skin that gives them an added gleam – so rub them with a soft chamois leather rather than wash them. Their absorbency also means that make-up can stain them, while chemicals, such as perfume or hairspray, can damage them.
My own favourites are a long string which I can wear doubled up, given to me by my son. They travel with me wherever I go. I can wear them with anything and am convinced they bring me luck. What more can you want from a necklace than that?