The History of Pearls: From Elite Accessory To Punk Statement Pieces
It’s said that Cleopatra once won a bet against Mark Antony by dissolving her pearl earring in a glass of wine as an aperitif, proving she had hosted the most expensive dinner. While natural pearls were once regarded as the most sacred of gems and were highly sought after by the upper echelons of society, the shimmering orbs have since become more accessible thanks to developments in pearl culturing. Over millennia, they’ve transformed from grand imperial symbols to must-have TikTok accessories, in a fascinating tale of human innovation.
Pearls have long captivated civilisations all over the world, but one of their earliest recorded mentions comes from China. In the third millennium BC, a Chinese historian disparaged a royal who gifted the emperor a “string of pearls not quite round” in a text known as the Shu King, setting a precedent for the pursuit of flawless spherical orbs, rather than the imperfect styles more popular today.
As well as coming with unbelievable price tags, pearls have long been associated with godliness across various cultures. In Indian mythology, the god Krishna bestowed his daughter with wedding pearls, while ancient Greeks described Aphrodite emerging from the surf wearing pearl earrings in the Iliad. As time passed, they became associated with royalty; in ancient Rome, for example, Julius Caesar decreed only the ruling class could don strings of pearls.
Before pearl cultivation became the norm, free divers were sent to scour the depths of the Persian Gulf and freshwater sites across China and Europe for oysters. As time progressed, European colonisation of North America led to pearl exports from freshwater sources in Ohio, Mississippi and Tennessee, while the Spanish discovered oysters along the coasts of Central America, bolstering the global trade.
Things shifted in the 1890s thanks to Kokichi Mikimoto, the son of a noodle maker from Toba, Japan. Mikimoto sought a solution to the problem of over-harvesting, eventually patenting a technique for creating hemispherical pearls (known as mabes) in 1896. After securing his own patents, he would later acquire another called the Mise-Nishikawa method, which is the basis for pearl culturing today.
The entrepreneur tweaked his technique specifically to create round pearls. His pearl empire drew the attention of American inventor Thomas Edison, who called his discovery “one of the wonders of the world”. At a 1927 meeting, Edison told Mikimoto, “This isn’t a cultured pearl; it’s a real pearl. It is something which is supposed to be biologically impossible.”
From there, Mikimoto declared his dream was to “adorn the necks of all women around the world with pearls”, and his discovery inched the world closer to that reality. No longer reserved for royalty, strings of pearls became popular symbols of Roaring Twenties decadence, as art nouveau and art deco styles thrived.
As Japanese cultured pearls hit the international market, they were integrated into more affordable costume jewellery designs, though purists were sceptical and natural pearls continued to be prized above others. Multi-strand pearl layering became the norm in the 1920s and Thirties; designer Coco Chanel was rarely seen without several pearl necklaces, a preference which would become a quintessential part of her eponymous brand’s identity.
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Although pearls fell out of fashion for a time, they returned with a vengeance in the 1950s. Stars such as Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Jackie Kennedy made single-strand necklaces synonymous with sophistication. Pearls would return to the realm of royalty in the 1980s thanks to Princess Diana, who popularised multi-strand pearl chokers again as she bore the weight of the Lover’s Knot Tiara, her iconic pearl and diamond tiara, created in 1913, which the Duchess of Cambridge continues to wear.
Gone are the days of stuffy aristocratic connotations, as designers continue to chart bold new territory. As the likes of Sonia Rykiel and Alexander McQueen have popularised baroque pearls, others such as Phillip Lim have given pearls a punk makeover in the past. Experimental designers like Y/Project have turned them into gigantic hoop earrings, while pearls have remained front and centre at Chanel shows.
Over the past couple of years, pearls have entered the realm of menswear, with Mikimoto launching a gender-neutral line with Commes des Garçons, and Harry Styles’ pearl necklaces dominating headlines, inspiring dancing teenage boys on TikTok to follow suit. Brands such as Eliou and Timeless Pearly have transformed pearls into playful everyday pieces, stringing them with everything from charming messages to rainbow beads. Although pearls are more prone to wear and tear than diamonds, stars including Emma Stone and Ariana Grande have recently flashed beautiful engagement rings featuring stunning pearls, ushering a new wave of interest in unconventional pearl pieces.
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