Pearl Renaissance

Why pearls are becoming the new diamonds

Revered since antiquity as a symbol of purity, power and wealth, pearls have a long history. In Roman times, women wore them to sleep, so Julius Caesar was a great patron of the gems. In 19th century Europe, royalty valued pearls above all other precious stones. Coco Chanel was never seen without her pearls, displaying them like a talisman day and night as earrings, a choker, a single strand or a cascade of sautoirs, matching them with her timeless fashion designs. Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, two of cinema’s most elegant stars, sported pearls frequently and Princess Diana adored pearl chokers.

Despite its high profile fans however, pearls had dropped off the fashion set’s radar by the 1990s. But as with all trend cycles, they have now come back into favour, their popularity propelled by a new set of style icons: the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton wears elegant pearl drop earrings; America’s First Lady Michelle Obama sports a double-strand pearl necklace; and Sarah Jessica Parker regularly accessorises her outfits with pearls.

Traditional views of pearls as old-fashioned jewellery are changing and contemporary jewellers are breathing new life into them through resolutely modern designs, reinventing pearls for young, modern women. No longer relegated to Grandmother’s closet, pearls are coming back into fashion in a big way, replacing diamonds as a staple among fashionistas.

Additionally, high-quality natural pearls, increasingly rare today due to overfishing and pollution, are now hitting record prices at auctions. Those that have some age or were part of a historic collection are particularly appealing to potential buyers. In September 2013, Bonhams auctioned a pair of 1925 art deco natural pearl and diamond chandelier earrings for £157,250 (RM870,000); in April 2014, it sold a pair of natural pearl and diamond pendant earrings dating back to 1965 for £290,500 (RM1.6 million) – double their estimate; and in September 2014, a 1910 single-strand natural pearl necklace with a diamond clasp achieved £194,500 (RM1.08 million).

Jean Ghika, Bonhams’ head of jewellery in the UK and Europe, notes: “Pearls were once seen as a bit dated – perhaps the preserve of an older generation, but we’ve seen a complete change in how they are viewed. A younger fashion set is now completely at home wearing classic pearl earrings, and you’re as likely to see them in nightclubs and premieres as you are at Ascot or the Epsom Derby.”

Last year’s Les Perles de Chanel haute joaillerie collection showed why Coco Chanel and her pearls were inseparable and just how chic these simple, perfectly shaped orbs can be in today’s context. The €2.5 million (RM11 million) dramatic, art deco-style Perles de Jour necklace of unusually large South Sea pearls with diamond tassels is sublimated by an 8-carat diamond, while Perles de Nuit is its contemporary in black Tahitian pearls. The Envolée Solaire parure mixes white and gold South Sea pearls, while multi-coloured pearls starred alongside and diamond and sapphire camellias in the Printemps de Camélia. Evoking couture fashion, the feather of the Plume Perlée necklace is paired with five rows of pearls, while the Perles Swing with four simple yet striking strands of gold, white, grey and pink pearls is made for carefree days. A diamond and sapphire lion’s head graces the Lion Baroque sautoir in pearls of varied hues.

Benjamin Comar, international director of Chanel fine jewellery, remarks: “Generally, you’d think that pearls are what a grandmother would give to her granddaughter. They feel very traditional, even over-classic. We’ve mixed pearls of different colours and shapes with gemstones and coloured stones to stretch the concept of designing with pearls. Pearls are very supple and comfortable and we’ve created pieces for the modern, active woman to wear day or night. Coco Chanel valued comfort and luxury and we’ve shown that pearl jewellery can be fun, colourful, creative and worn in different ways. These are not meant to be ‘trophies’, but to be worn every day.”

The recent explosion in demand for contemporary pearl jewellery may also be due to increasing numbers of jewellers proposing more affordable pieces. Putting the focus solely on aesthetics, Dior’s Mise en Dior tribal-inspired double-pearl earrings aren’t even made of real pearls but materials such as resin, agate, metal with palladium finish, howlite or glass. A small “pearl” rests on the ear while the larger one peeks out from behind the lobe, creating a bold asymmetric effect. The earrings were first shown in the brand’s pre-fall 2013 collection and have since been worn by stars like Rihanna, Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Watson, accelerating the pearl’s modern makeover.

For handmade pearl jewellery that is design-led and revolutionising the way pearls are perceived, Greek-born, London-based designer Melanie Georgacopoulos splices them to resemble faceted diamonds so that light penetrates their inner surfaces, surrounds them with multicoloured sapphires, imitates them using precious metals, cages them in gold or turns them into statement pieces, where bibs of pearls are strung together like fabric.

Georgacopoulos explains: “I decided to make pearls my trademark in 2007 when I noticed that there was very little contemporary pearl jewellery and that most people thought them outdated and conventional. I try to look at pearls from a fresh perspective when creating my collections, concentrating on innovative designs that are easy to wear. In the last couple of years, pearls have become very trendy and the market has been flooded with both affordable and fine pearl jewellery. Of course, it has helped a lot that pearls are appearing more and more on the catwalk as well as on prominent music stars and actresses. These days, young women are not restricted to the traditional single-strand pearl necklace anymore; they now have a wide variety of interesting choices such as ear cuffs or double rings. Furthermore, pearl jewellery is now accessible to all, as there is a wide selection to choose from for every budget.”

In classic-contemporary territory, British jeweller Annoushka Ducas’ pearl designs capture the art deco spirit and classic Hollywood glamour of the 1920s even while it honours the Philippines – home to the master craftsmen she first worked with, where she handpicked each pearl from a single, artisanal farm in the Iloilo province. She comments, “Intricately crafted, I wanted this sensual and tactile collection to express a true spirit of modernity.”

In the exact opposite of a classic pearl choker, single strand necklace or simple stud earrings where the pearls take centrestage, Tiffany & Co integrates them into designs and treat them just like precious stones. Diamonds and seed pearls are combined in tassel pendant and chandelier drop earrings, which drape effortlessly and move with great fluidity. Other fabulous examples include earrings and a bracelet from the brand’s 2014 Blue Book Collection featuring Montana sapphires, diamonds and seed pearls set in platinum, inspired by archival sketches of lace and collar pins.

While most modern-day designs highlight cultured pearls, the London-based David Morris has created multiple pieces using natural pearls, in particular, its perennial favourite, the rare, feminine Caribbean conch pearl. One-off pieces include a pink conch pearl and micro-diamond flower motif ring set in 18-carat white gold, and a flexible pink conch pearl bangle with fancy pink diamonds and white pear-shaped diamonds set in 18-carat white gold. Another stunner is an 18-carat white gold natural pearl open ring with white micro-set diamonds.

David Morris’ Creative director Erin Morris says: “Historically speaking, pearls have always been in fashion, from the age of Queen Elizabeth portraying wealth and virtue in court to politicians’ wives – think of the 1990s with Nancy Regan and Barbara Bush. Also, there are ironically worn multi-strands by Vivienne Westwood and Madonna. We have always used pearls either in luxuriant South Sea strands or in fantastic jewel creations, like the elegant pearl tassel creations, which can be worn from day to night. The past 20 years have seen the cultured pearl market overly saturated so we began collecting rare natural and conch pearls, most of which are over 100 years old and have gemmological certification. For a young woman, what could be more satisfyingly beautiful and feminine to collect than a pearl?”

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