“A woman needs ropes and ropes of pearls” declared Coco Chanel as she opened her first boutique. Having recently attended the V&A’s Pearls exhibition I am inclined to agree. The exhibition begins by scientifically explaining the development of pearls-forming due to the intrusion of microscopic parasites into a mollusc shell which forms a pearl sac and secretes calcium carbonate over the irritant (FYI)-before showcasing exquisite examples of pearls through the ages and then describing the environment of the modern pearl industry. The insights were indeed fascinating but I think most visitors, like me, were there to see the bling, and impress it did. But where does our fascination with pearls come from?
Firstly, these white spheres are referenced in many religious texts. In the Hindu tradition, pearls are associated with deities, most famously with Lord Vishnu who wears one on his chest. In a Christian New Testament parable, Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a “pearl of great price” (Matthew 13: 45–46). “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.” The Qur’an too says dwellers of paradise will be adorned with pearls (22:23) “God will admit those who believe and work righteous deeds, to Gardens beneath which rivers flow: they shall be adorned therein with bracelets of gold and pearls; and their garments there will be of silk.” Owning pearls, in the past, have therefore been associated with the wearer living in a state of paradise and possessing supernatural powers, no wonder they were so desirable.
Both Hindu and Christian traditions hold pearls as symbolic of purity. For this reason, pearls were often given to brides on wedding days. At least until the beginning of the 20th century it was a Hindu custom to present a completely new, undrilled pearl and pierce it during the wedding ceremony.
Not only do these sea jewels hold symbolic value, they are purported to have medicinal qualities. Ayurveda medicine claims pearl powder as a stimulant of digestion and treatment for mental ailments. When travelling in China I remember being offered cream of pearls as a skin whitening treatment which also soothed and even skin tone, not that I needed help on the whitening front!
Style icons Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor were rarely seen without their strings but it was not for the above reasons. Instead, their ropes held sentimental value and I am sure many women wear theirs for similar reasons. Monroe had little interest in jewellery but she adored the simple pearl necklace given to her by Joe DiMaggio on their honeymoon in January 1954 so much she wore it at their divorce hearing later that year. Kennedy loved her triple stranded necklace which was designed by fashion doyenne Coco Chanel and believed to have been inherited from her mother.
Arguably the world’s most famous and greatest love story around a pearl is La Peregrina, a story of slaves, royalty and Hollywood. The pearl was found by an African slave in the Gulf of Panama in the mid-16th century. It was given to Don Pedro de Temez, the administrator of the Spanish colony in Panama, in exchange for the slave’s freedom.
The pearl was then carried by Temez to Spain and given to Philip II of Spain in anticipation of his marriage to Mary I of England. Mary wore the pearl as a pendant on a brooch, as seen in her famous portrait exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery, London. After her death in 1558, the pearl was returned to the Crown of Spain, where it remained as part of the crown jewellery for the next 250 years. It became one of the favourite ornaments for the Spanish queens of the era. Margaret of Austria, wife of Philip III, wore the pearl for the celebration of the peace treaty between Spain and England in 1605. Portraits made by Diego Velázquez are evidence that the pearl was also prized by Elisabeth of France and Mariana of Austria, wives of Philip IV.
In 1808 Napoleon’s elder brother, Joseph, was installed as king of Spain but when he was forced to leave he took La Peregrina. At this time it is little wonder the pearl got its name “La Peregrina – the Wanderer”. In his will, Joseph left the pearl to his nephew, the future Napoleon III. During his exile in England, the Emperor sold it to James Hamilton, future Duke of Abercorn who bought the pearl for his wife. The Hamilton family owned the pearl until 1969 when they sold it a Sotheby’s auction in London where it was purchased by Richard Burton for $37,000.
Burton gave La Peregrina to his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, as a Valentine’s Day. On one occasion, the pearl went missing in the Burtons’ suite at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas. In her book Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair with Jewelry, Taylor writes:
“At one point I reached down to touch La Peregrina and it wasn’t there! I glanced over at Richard and thank God he wasn’t looking at me, and I went into the bedroom and threw myself on the bed, buried my head into the pillow and screamed. Very slowly and very carefully, I retraced all my steps in the bedroom. I took my slippers off, took my socks off, and got down on my hands and knees, looking everywhere for the pearl. Nothing. I thought, “It’s got to be in the living room in front of Richard. What am I going to do. He’ll kill me! Because he loved the piece.”
After a few agonising minutes, Taylor looked at their puppies. One of them was apparently chewing on a bone, but nobody gave bones to the puppies. Taylor continues “I just casually opened the puppy’s mouth and inside his mouth was the most perfect pearl in the world. It was—thank God—not scratched.”
Taylor later commissioned Cartier to re-design the necklace, setting La Peregrina with pearls, diamonds, and rubies. In December 2011 the pearl was sold on the Cartier necklace at Christie’s, New York, for a record price of over $11 million (£7.1m) even though the value had been estimated at $3 million.
I too have sentimental pearls. For my christening my godmother gave me a delicate string, wearable from an early age but which I still enjoy wearing. Actually, it was this same godmother who took me to the exhibition mentioned above. This guardian of mine is woman of ageless, manicured style, no doubt this early gift of pearls will be one which continues giving pleasure. The second lot of genuine pearls placed in my custody are a pair of earrings my mother gave to me for my thirteenth birthday. On their opening she said she believed all grown up woman should own a pair. She unwittingly quoted Elizabeth Taylor who is often believed to have said “Big girls need big pearls”, in fact she was talking about diamonds. Throughout my life, my mum has influenced my sense of style and dress, whether I wanted her to or not. Almost every day without fail she wears pearls of some form or other, mostly necklaces or earrings, so when I wear mine for a brief moment I can compare myself to the woman I idolise most. For my 18th birthday family friends gave me a large necklace and earring set from India which I enjoy wearing more as fashion pieces. These family friends have been incredibly loving and significant my entire life so when I wear this set, together or as separate pieces, I can happily reminisce about past times.
Should I become a godmother to a girl, I intend to give her a single pearl on each of her birthdays so that when she is eighteen she will enter adulthood with a string. As the V&A showed me, pearls are enduring. Now, I wonder who will come to look after my precious pearls when I am no longer here…