Officially the world’s oldest gem, pearls have been revered since long before written history
and only the royal family members had the exclusive right and the opportunity to wear them.
Until the start of the 20th century, the only way of collecting pearls was through divers risking their lives at depths of up to 100ft to retrieve the pearl oysters.
Kokichi Mikimoto, the son of a Japanese noodle maker, created the world’s first cultured pearl in 1893 by manually introducing an irritant into an oyster to stimulate it to form a pearl.
Mikimoto’s Akoya pearls are still used today by the jewellery house that bears his name and are renowned for their brilliant lustre and rich colours, which range from white, cream and pink, to silvery pink.
“A woman needs ropes and ropes of pearls,” declared Coco Chanel, who was rarely seen without a pile of pearls casually worn around her neck.
She shocked society ladies by mixing the real thing with fakes and teaming her pearls with casual daywear. Largely thanks to her endorsement, costume jewellery became popular and many women wore imitation pearl jewellery made from Lucite or glass.
Traditionally, pearls were celebrated for their uniformity in size and colour but now it seems the more avant-garde, the better. Pearls in vibrant colours and unusual shapes are being incorporated into unique jewels by jewellers renowned for their creativity.
Today, natural pearls are among the rarest of gems and their almost entirely depleted supply means that they are found very infrequently only in the seas off Bahrain and Australia. The scarcity of natural pearls is reflected in the prices they fetch at auction, with antique pearl necklaces and earrings selling for record-breaking sums.
If you thought pearls were just for girls, think again. Less blingy than gemstones, these lustrous orbs are finding their way into men’s jewellery too.
Even today, wearing pearls – natural, cultural or just faux , emphasizes elegance and class.