“The richest merchandise of all, and the most sovereign commodity throughout the whole world, are these Pearls”
Pliny the Elder, author of Historia Naturalis, A.D. 105
Fashion designer Mademoiselle Coco Chanel, whose elegant collections have always featured pearls, would wear multi strands cascading from her swan-like neck and pearls became her signature. Although they may have been faux, both former American first ladies, Barbara Bush and Jackie O, wore short multi-strands. Pearls have adorned royalty as their favoured gem. And if you’re old enough, you’ll recall the graduated single string of pearls – the perfect accessory for twin set sweaters and also probably the most purchased Sweet Sixteen gift. Those pearly beads personified innocence and purity.
And when a museum like Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum holds an exhibition on pearls, which it did in 2005, it was a renewed interest in these baubles. Museum goers flocked to learn about nacre, size, shape, colour and lustre, the properties that give pearls their allure.
The first spherical cultured pearls were produced in 1740 in Sweden. In the 20th century, techniques were re-invented by Kokichi Mikimoto in Japan. From Collar length (12-13 inches), to Choker (14-16 inches), Princess (17-19 inches), Matinee (20-24 inches) and Opera (28-34 inches), today, pearls work as well with jeans as they do with evening wear.
Anecdotes about the preciousness of the Queen of the Gems are legendary.
Cleopatra reportedly had a wager with Marc Anthony that she could consume the wealth of a country in just one meal. She deftly dissolved a rare single pearl into vinegar, mixed it with her cup of wine, drank it and won the bet.
And at the height of the Roman Empire, a Roman general financed an entire military campaign by selling one of his mother’s pearl earrings. One wonders what happened to the other earring.
Perhaps the most recognized story which symbolizes the value of pearls was the deal that enabled Cartier’s to open in New York City. The building on 5th Avenue which still houses the venerable brand, was exchanged for two strings of the finest quality pearls valued then at a million dollars. Apparently Pierre Cartier didn’t hesitate for a moment when New York banker Morton F. Plant offered this exchange.
The world yearns for beauty and luxury and happily in the aftermath of accessory-free fashion minimalism, runway modes are accessorized again. Strands are interrupted by starbursts of diamonds, intricate large pendants hang from a simple string of pearls separated by gold links, lariats of gold end with pearl tassels, pearls dangle from gold chain colliers. Huge black Tahitians hang from hoop earrings, from twigs of gold and diamonds, pearls seem to be the fruits while other designs feature diamond petals covering the pearl and a wide gold bracelet is studded intermittently with large pearls.
With worldwide pearl cultivation, Akoya pearls from Japan and China, White South Sea pearls from Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines, Tahitian pearls from the French Polynesia, fresh water pearls from China and Japan and harvests from the American east coast, these gems have become affordable and available in various colours and shapes.
You’d be hard pressed to find natural pearls unless they’ve been handed down from granny. And they would have a hefty price tag if any did become available.
At Birks & Sons, Inc., John Thomson, Toronto store director, says that pearls are a constant good seller. “Traditional strands from 60 inches to 100 inches in fresh water Chinese pearls are especially popular.”
The fashion-savvy mavens look for long strands which can be made into lariats, a most popular trend.
“Pastel colours like pink and mauve are a hit,” says Thompson. The price range is reasonable from $295 for 18 inches to $950 for 100 inches.
The smaller the pearl, the more vivid colours. But there is and always will be, an interest in the larger glamourous and pricey South Sea pearls. However, Thompson is seeing a real move towards Tahitian black pearls.
“They’re dramatic” he states. Obviously when the size increases so does the price point and since perfectly round pearls have to be matched, it may take a few years to obtain them hence larger ticket prices. “But the interest is there,” Thompson says.
Pendants of a single pearl on a fine chain also sell very well at Birks and continues to be trendy.
Earring studs of any size pearl exemplify the popularity of these gems. However, small pearls don’t suit ring settings but larger pearls like the South Sea and Tahitian have proved especially good and are perfect for a dressier look.
As for bracelets, Thompson isn’t seeing a lot of interest except with fresh water pearl bracelets.
Meanwhile at Tiffany & Co, Andrea Hopson, Vice President, Canada, echoes a lot of what Thompson stated.
“Pearls have never lost their popularity. Presently, fresh water pearls are very successful and come in a rainbow of colours,” concurs Hopson.
Tiffany & Co. however, does feature bracelets. There are pearl and diamond combinations most often worked with uniformed pearls. And Tiffany is seeing many brides opting for pearl and diamond jewelry.
“Good pearls should have perfection. Rosy overtones are the most in demand,” says Hopson.
But one mustn’t forget men. Real men do wear real pearls and they are usually small and black and neck gear and have become a world-wide masculine jewelry statement.
A key issue is the person’s colouring. Oriental women prefer pearls with a yellowish tint while Caucasians look for rosy tones.
“There’s no sign of the demand for pearls waning,” says Hopson. “Our big concern a few years ago was the pollution and Red tides off Japan which played havoc on the pearl stock.”
Hopson also sees strength with exotic Tahitian blacks and Akoya culture pearls. Both continue to be staples in the jewelry box. Akoya pearls range from 5mm to 8mm
As for the exotic Tahitian which vary from pale grey to aubergine and peacock coloration, she says “Peacock, we’ve found is the tone most in demand”.
Tiffany’s big sellers are the 9mm to 15 mm cultured pearl often with a pave ball clasp or petal diamond clasp. Another hit are multi-coloured twisted fresh water pearls.
As for earrings, Tiffany & Co, have diamond and pearl drop combo, a preference for evening or special occasions.
For the past few seasons, large brooches have made a major fashion statement some being worn at the waist while other more conservative types pin them onto their lapels or shoulders. Although they maintain their status as a fashion accessory, the coloured gem stones and gold are outselling pearl brooches.
Canadian born, New York based jewelry designer, Marilyn Cooperman whose client list is like reading a who’s who of the rich and famous, designs big, bold jewelry.
“I use a lot of coloured precious and semi-precious stones with pearls,” says Cooperman. She cites a large bracelet of pearls set into gold with light brown diamonds. But she also offers that “there is no indication of a major trends for me. If my idea looks good on paper, I’ll have it made,” she says with New York moxie.
But she does emphasize the employment of a lot of colour and a lot of keshi pearls. The keshi pearls (irregular-shaped, non-nucleated) with brown diamonds turn into a fabulous brooch. As for that classic strand of pearls, Cooperman opts for pearls that are about ¾ each apart offset with coloured stones.
Retailers, designer and wholesalers all share the same interest in pearls.
Lilianne Moses of Lilianne’s Fine jewelry sees many international clients, including rock stars, cross over the threshold of her small bijou of a store in Toronto’s Intercontinental Hotel. From their purchases she cites pearls topping her list .
“ South Seas are the most popular,” she says. “In the summer, white pearls are far more popular than black Tahitians. But black pearls are going strong.”
Moses also sees golden Tahitians as well as multi-coloured strands picking up in the last few years. .
“Women are also combining larger with smaller, dark with light, giving new dimension to the classics,” states Moses.
However, not all is serious and there is “a fun trend” with fresh water pearls from China. Worn either one strand on top of the other or twisted, multi strands create a pretty rainbow of colours especially pinks, peaches, lavenders, whites and creams and they are age appropriate and affordable. Also at Lilliane’s, long drop pearl earrings and chandelier styles are in demand. There’s also a great shift to baroque pearls in different sizes, colour “and they are finally appreciated.”
Youthful and up and coming British designer, Amanda Brighton says, “pearls have departed substantially from staid ‘bridal pearls. Fancy coloured freshwater pearls together with onyx and sapphires play off each other. Soft and romantic with strong materials are far more interesting than an isolated pearl.
Pearls are painstakingly matched for their lustre, shape, size and colour. And since pearls are fragile given that they are from a living organism and not a gemstone found in a mine, they can easily be damaged. Perfume and environmental elements can affect pearls which can’t be replaced. Colour changes with time and wear and aren’t easily matched.
Owners of these precious bivalve by-products should always remember an old adage for the preservation of pearls. “Last on, first off.”