There is perhaps no accessory more iconic than a strand of pearls. This stylish piece of jewelry has withstood the test of time and manages to remain relevant decade after decade. With trends continually changing, this is no small feat. Its pearlescent polish has continually provided the perfect finishing touch, resulting in an adornment that is truly reached legendary proportions.
Its easy to consider pearl accessories uniquely modern. In actuality, pearls are the world’s first precious gemstone and have roots that extend as far back as humanity itself. Once revered by Egyptian princesses and European royalty, the pearl proves to have a staying power that defies convention and continues to captivate.
Pearls are incredibly unique in the way that they are formed organically from a living being. Created when a foreign object becomes lodged within an oyster, it’s suspected that pearls were discovered largely on accident. Historians believe that early humans stumbled upon pearls while hunting for food along sea’s vast shorelines, luckily appreciating the beauty of these lustrous organic objects. Their origins cement their status as the world’s first precious gemstone. There was a distinct, mystical quality that the pearl possessed, perhaps due to its captivating luminescence. In Asia, where pearls were said to have been first discovered, the Chinese considered the pearl to be a symbol of purity. Their scarcity also perhaps had a hand in shrouding them in mystery. Because they are naturally occurring, there is no guarantee that a found pearl would be a large one, and many risked their lives exploring the sea in search of the elusive perfect pearl. Their captivating look has been revered for literally thousands of years. After their discovery, pearls were frequently given as gifts to Chinese royalty, as noted in documents that date back to nearly 1,000 BC. Alexander the Great, who ruled Greece beginning in 336 BC, was said to have an affinity for pearl adornments and a fragment of pearl jewelry was even found within the tomb of an ancient Persian Princess who died in 420BC. These discoveries and re-tellings prove that the human love affair with pearls has spanned multiple millennia. During subsequent eras, Pearls became revered and associated with the Roman goddess Venus, who is also said to have been born from the ocean and is famously depicted emerging from the shell of an oyster herself. The famous Egyptian princess Cleopatra was also said to have an love for pearls, and legend has it that she even dissolved and drank them, partaking in a trend that was oddly popular among the wealthy in Ancient Egypt. Pearls became so precious and valuable in Ancient Rome that Julius Caesar even lead military advances to conquer the coastlines of Scotland in order to possess the freshwater pearl resources in that area. Valuable for trade during this time, they helped bolster the Roman economy and were also beloved by ancient Roman women to an almost excessive degree. Caesar himself had to create a law regulating the amount of pearls a woman could wear because he wanted to maintain their regality.
After the end of the crusades in the 11th century, soldiers returned to Europe from Arabia and other foreign lands with riches such as gold, silver, and, of course, pearls. They once again rose to popularity among the wealthy during the 12th and 13th centuries, partly because of a surprisingly practical reason. Mined gemstones were not cut, polished, or faceted in the Middle Ages like they are today, meaning stones like diamonds, rubies, and emeralds often looked lackluster. Pearls emerge from their shell perfectly polished and ready for use, making them highly sought after adornments and instant signifiers of wealth. During the 15th and 16th century in Europe, pearls had in no way lost their appeal. Royalty reigned supreme during the Middle Ages, and wealthy monarchs throughout the land adorned themselves with valuable pearls to exemplify their status. Worn exclusively by monarchs, many depictions of royal figures during this time show them accessorized in strands of pearls. Notably, Margaret of Denmark wore an ornamental pearl-encrusted head covering, which is now considered one of the most lavish pearl accessories in history. The famous depiction of Anne Boleyn also shows strands of pearls hanging from her beautiful - yet ill-fated - neck. Pearls during the Middle Ages were once again considered incredibly symbolic. Members of the clergy used pearls to decorate valuable religious objects and also wore them during special ceremonies. The public also considered pearls a source of good luck, which began the tradition of knights wearing pearl accessories into battle to protect them from their enemy. Although the world during the Middle Ages is significantly different from the one that we live in today, the human love of pearls remains unchanged.
Europe was not the only place where pearls were worn as stylish decorations. Native people of the Americas and Caribbean also considered pearls a thing of beauty. In the Americas, pearls were plentiful in freshwater lakes and rivers, allowing the people who originated on these lands to also become captivated by the allure of the pearl. Pearls and pearl jewelry were often used in trade between tribes in exchange for goods and services. When explorers crossed the Atlantic Ocean in search of new worlds, they were greeted by these native people, who presented them with gifts such as furs, woven textiles, and pearls. When the Spanish, English, and French discovered that pearls were a plentiful resource on these newly discovered lands, they harvested an incredible amount and sent them back to Europe. So many were harvested that unfortunately these precious natural resources quickly began to deplete. By the late 19th century, the presence of naturally occurring pearls in North America was nearly obsolete. There is one singular man, however, who is the most important player in the entire history of pearls. Born in Japan in 1858, Mikimoto Kōkichi grew up with an endless fascination with pearls. During a time when the availability of pearls was not able to keep up with their steep demand, Mikimoto set out to develop a different way to harvest this beautiful yet rare natural resource. After many, many years of perfecting his craft, the cultured pearl was ultimately born.
During the Roaring Twenties, fashion was quickly changing in America. Women for the first time ever experienced a sense of freedom, and stylish women known as Flappers became synonymous with this era. These women wore their dresses short, their hair short, and wanted to embody the sleek, streamlined look of the Art Deco period. French designers and Flappers were changing the way that women thought about fashion, creating the aesthetic that made the 1920s famous. The Industrial Revolution made the manufacture of mass produced goods and synthetic materials possible for the first time ever. Baubles known as Costume Jewelry became all the rage, allowing women to style themselves head to toe in accessories. Designers and women everywhere embraced the readily available nature of these synthetic materials, appreciating how they provided a cost effective way to bring any look to life. In a decade heralded for its decadence and glamour, it makes sense, then, that the legendary pearl once again rose to the height of popularity. The pearl necklace appealed to flappers because of its lustrous look and sleek appearance, which perfectly aligned with the Art Deco style that was all the rage. Women during this decade wore long strands of faux pearls that were sometimes layered for added effect. Pearls also often made an appearance on Egyptian-inspired head coverings and fashionable hair accessories during this time. When we think of 1920s style today, however, a long pearl necklace is one of the first accessories that comes to mind. These statement necklaces were modern and beautiful, perfectly accenting the distinctive style of women during this time period. Famous icons like dancer Josephine Baker along with silver screen actresses like Marie Prevost and Marion Davies were known for piling on pearls, which added to their appeal and popularity during this era. Costume jewelry brought the pearl necklace to the masses, allowing everyone to wear the signature style that has been popular for thousands of years.
While pearls may seem basic, behind every strand is a vast history that spans centuries and crosses the globe. From humble beginnings along sea shores to their iconic rise to fame as a mass produced, must-have accessory in the 1920s, the pearl necklace proves that some things truly never go out of style. Even today, pearls are highly revered, making the long and improbable history of this naturally occurring gem far from over.