In his Epigrams (VIII.81), Martial chides a Roman matron who swears, not by the gods (an oath most typical of the time), but by her pearls, which she loves more than her own sons. It seems the love of pearls spans millennia. Each era takes that queen of gems and gem of queens and makes it their own; styling pearls in fabulous designs that encapsulate the zeitgeist of the time. Shall we forget the extravagance of Cleopatra at banquet, or the fervor of Columbus at sea? Over the centuries, pearls have rested quietly against the skin of the jeunesse dorée and the haute célébrité alike. But how pearls are worn and how they are styled continually evolves. Take a journey through the history of pearl style with Spey.
A Lustrous Beginning
Since man first waded into the tempestuous seas and held his breath in curiosity at what lay beneath, pearls have been a treasured collection, talisman and lustrous gem. The earliest specimens were stitched into clothing or inlayed into art, before man perfected the drilling technique that would bind pearls together in fabulous jewelry strands, pendants and earrings. Have a crown? It’s better with pearl, as this 11th-century Byzantine mosaic of the Empress Zoë within the Hagia Sophia affirms.
For thousands of years, pearls were the sole domain of the nobility, being so precious and rare that the common man could only but dream of holding in his hand a cool, lustrous pearl. Edicts were issued that further restricted the buying and selling of pearls to individuals within the royal families of Europe, or the sultans and maharajas of the East. The expedition that eventually led to the European settlement of the Western Hemisphere was looking for more than just spices. Countless treasures were amassed in the hands of a very few. Who but an Empress of Russia could array herself in such luxury as Alexandra Feodorovna, born Princess Charlotte of Prussia? The lady is painted here by Scottish artist Christina Robertson (1840) and found within The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.
Notice the ropes of pearls cascading from her shoulders, the Brobdingnagian pearl drops at each ear, the excellently matched strand of pearls at her neck, and those stitched into the very gown at her bosom. Now here is a woman who knows how to style with pearls!
The Democratization of Pearl Style
The turn of the twentieth century brought with it many advances in aquaculture, particularly the ability to culture, or farm, pearls. Not only a far more sustainable and environmentally-friendly way to meet the global demand for pearls, culturing also allowed this distinctive gem to reach consumers outside of palace walls. Perfectly round, uniform and lustrous pearls were strung into strands and eagerly bought by GIs stationed in the South Pacific, to be draped about the neck of a special “girl back home.” Now, Society belles and debutants and working moms alike could all add a little pearl style to their wardrobe. But even as pearls spread across the globe, the connection to royalty has not diminished.
Diana, Princess of Wales (affectionately “The People’s Princess”) favored pearls quite highly – having, as she did, access to one of the most splendid royal jewelry collections. Her iconic pearl collar accompanied her to many notable occasions, from the 1985 State dinner at the White House, to her defiant “you’ll never get me down” little black Stambolian dress.
Pearl Style Today
Today, pearls are enjoyed by all who appreciate the finer things in life: quiet luxury, uncompromising quality, and indefatigable luster. Modern collections of pearl jewelry benefit from centuries of inspiration – and with muses like the fabulous ladies discussed above (not to mention the elegantly chic Washingtonians that patron the Spey collection), we look forward to many more centuries of festooning the most powerful women in the world in pearls. For remember: power comes not from birth, but from confidence and intelligence and a fabulous strand of pearls – and that, my dear friends, is something every woman can achieve.