Clothing your Character: Pearls

By Maggie McCarthy. Media by Bri Phillips.

For centuries, people have used pearls for accessorizing and ornamentation.  In fact, they have held the status of ‘prized jewel’ centuries before cut stones gained popularity. Although other stones require mining, cutting, and polishing, the pearl possesses natural beauty that requires no extra work. A large part of the pearl’s appeal rests in its natural origins. Unlike other precious gems, they come from a living animal, a mollusk. Created by a random process of nature, they carry a sense of mystery and wonder. While today we often consider them a commonplace accessory, they held a much higher status in the ancient world.

Original Image by Bri Phillips

Throughout history, a natural pearl necklace made up of matching spheres was a treasure of almost incomparable value.  These natural gems were first discovered in The Arabian Gulf and it remained their main source for centuries. In fact, seventy to eighty percent of all pearls came from the Gulf until the 1950s. Before the creation of cultured pearls in the 1900s, only the noble and rich could obtain these rare gems.

The obsession with pearls reached its pinnacle at the height of the Roman Empire, and according to the historian Suetonius, a Roman general financed a whole military mission through the sale of one of his mother’s pearl earrings.  During this time, pearls conveyed a sense of wealth and social status, so much so that Julius Caesar enacted legislation restricting people under certain ranks from wearing them.

Ancient mythology from all over the world is permeated with references to pearls and their origins. According to Hindu texts, Krishna discovered the first pearl and gave it to his daughter as a gift on her wedding day. Greek mythology claims that they came from the tears of Aphrodite, shed upon her birth from sea froth. Tribal Indians, too, claimed that pearls came from the tears of the gods. An ancient Arabian legend tells a tale of dewdrops filled with moonlight that fell into the ocean and were then swallowed by oysters, forming the matchless pearl. As these stories depict, cultures from around the world viewed them with a sense of awe and mystery.

Upon the dawning of the Renaissance, pearls entered a new era. They became the prime fashion luxury of the elite, royal class. While the Persian Gulf remained their primary source, the discovery of the New World prompted a flood of the gems from the coasts of modern day Venezuela, Panama, and the Gulf of California. Freshwater pearls harvested in the Americas found a steady market among more sophisticated and wealthy Europeans. By the 19th century, the pearl trade had transformed. Their popularity had spread from the royals to the upper and middle class, ultimately leading to much higher demand. Unfortunately, this was not maintainable and the natural pearl trade regressed. The discovery of the cultured pearl, however, has allowed for people of all classes to wear these naturally beautiful gems that symbolize elegance and purity.

Original Image by Bri Phillips

Due to their rich history, pearls should maintain a unique status. However, their easy access often causes us to forget their intrinsic value and splendor. Regardless of their affordability compared to other gemstones, they still serve as a universal symbol of purity and modest beauty. Fashion icons such as Coco Chanel, Elizabeth Taylor, and Jackie O made them their accessory of choice. The quintessential pearl earrings still remain a staple in every woman’s wardrobe. These classic wonders of nature never go out of fashion and can be made to suit varying senses of style from edgy and punk to classic and preppy. Whether you’re in jeans and a V-neck or headed to a formal event, pearls add a special element of sophistication. As Jackie Kennedy once said, “Pearls are always appropriate.”


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