Pearl: Queen of Gems
For the first month of summer, June’s birthstone is the illustrious pearl. Perhaps no other precious gem holds such a history or pedigree. Practically ever since we started plucking pretty things out of the natural world and putting them onto our bodies, pearls have been among our most prized adornments. From ancient times until we began faceting gemstones in the mid 15th century, pearls were the item of jewelry for royalty and wealthy nobles.
Though pearls may no longer be the dominant gem in the jewelry world, they have never disappeared from the most sophisticated jewelry boxes. From Coco Chanel to Queen Elizabeth, pearls today are still synonymous with luxury and refinement—an elegant rather than an ostentatious jewel.
The perfection of techniques for culturing pearls in the final years of the 19th century brought a new pearl boom. Today, practically all pearls, aside from some of those found in antique jewelry, are cultured pearls, still highly prized and very beautiful. Natural pearls, especially those of relatively even shape and color, are rare and treasured. The Edwardians combined pearls with their other beloved “white” materials: diamonds and white metals such as platinum. And we’re all familiar with the image of the flapper wearing her strands of pearls.
Coco Chanel, a great lover of pearls, famously (if likely apocryphally) quipped that a woman should have “ropes and ropes” of them. The style icon who advised women to remove the last accessory they put on clearly didn’t follow her own advice when it came to pearls, and legend has it that by the end of her life she had so many imitation strands from before she “made it” that she could no longer tell them from the genuine. But we certainly can!
Long flapper strands made way for smart chokers and collars with matching bracelets, short ear clips with large pearl centers, or tailored pins by the middle of the 20th century. Queen Elizabeth II and Jackie Kennedy favored them—wearing a simple, tailored strand of pearls became so synonymous with mid-century values as to become humorous shorthand for the 1950s American homemaker. This wry note aside, these styles are still iconic “must-haves” for many collectors of both vintage and contemporary jewelry.
Since diamonds today hold the place that pearls once did in the ancient world, why not have both? Many outstanding pieces combine the two favorites, without overshadowing the beauty of either.
Learn more about the long and fascinating history of pearls in personal adornment on our sister site, Antique Jewelry University (http://www.langantiques.com/university/Pearl ). Happy birthday to our June babies, and may your birthstone bring you good company—you know what they say about casting them before swine!