The Pearl. Fashion and Finance in the History of the Gem

Posted by JewelryKind

Not too long ago, pearls were considered outdated relics, remnants of an old world of conservative and uptight generations. However, they weren’t always this discredited, and their reputation changed for the better in recent years as well. In this article, we will explore the complicated history of the queen of gems.

The Pearl: A Historical Fashion Statement
Nowadays, we are used to seeing pearls everywhere. However, there was a time when this queen of gems was reserved to a select few. The rich history of the ocean’s most respected treasure begins many centuries ago. Ancient Egyptians used mother of pearl for decorative purposes as far back as 4200 B.C.

As for the spherical aquatic wonders themselves, their first attested presence revolves around the Persian conquest of Egypt in 525 B.C. following the battle of Pelusium. The connection between Cambyses II taking the throne away from the Pharaohs and pearls is unclear, and the craze surrounding them was actually born in the midst of the Roman Empire.

How collecting and wearing them as ornaments came about is also a mystery. In his 1908 work The Book of the Pearl, pioneer gemologist George Frederick Kunz proposes the theory according to which members of an ancient Indian fish-eating tribe that lived on the coast found them while eating oysters and were drawn to the luster and shape of the gems.

Nevertheless, this is merely a simple hypothesis that cannot be proved. Still, the beginning of this trade is most likely as simple as that. Due to their immense beauty and undisputable splendor, pearls became the talk of the town in one of the world’s most powerful empires, the Roman Empire. The enthusiasm surrounding them peaked during the first century B.C.

How the Pearl Craze Began in Ancient Rome
Around the year 100 B.C., Roman women had fallen madly in love with pearls. They sewed them into their gowns to the point that these became too heavy to wear, and they even upholstered couches with the aid of the mesmerizing gem of the ocean. The queen of gems was not only a symbol of style, status, and class, but also a tool for crafty home décor.

What is more, the ladies of Rome weren’t the only ones gushing over these beauties. When the emperor Caligula famously went insane and made his horse a consul, he draped a pearl necklace across the animal’s neck. Animals and humans alike adorned themselves with the jewels as a fashion and social class statement.

Nowadays, we’re used to high-class pearl necklaces costing anywhere between 500 and 5,000 dollars. But back in Roman times, their value was unfathomable.According to Suetonius, a historian from the equestrian order, general Vitellius financed an intricate military campaign with the money obtained by selling one single pearl earring from his mother’s collection.

Cultured Pearls Took the Fashion World by Storm
In spite of their long aquatic history, the pearls we are used to seeing nowadays are rarely plucked directly from the ocean. Modern farming started in the early 1900s, and one Japanese entrepreneur by the name of Kochiki Mikimoto is widely credited with inventing this trade. Together with his wife Ume, he set up shop in the Shinmei inlet in Ago Bay.

Mikimoto had no formal scientific training of any kind. In fact, he was simply the son of the local noodle maker. It was his deep-rooted passion for the sea and the gems that were born in it that fueled his endeavor. He and Ume began their business in 1888, and eight long years of trial and error followed during which they tried creating their pearls.

The two succeeded in 1896 and received their patent. The Mikimotos dedicated their lives to producing perfect gems that revolutionized the jewelry market forever. This didn’t happen only due to the quality of the product, but also thanks to Mikimoto’s astute showmanship.

He was notorious in the business for burning heaps of imperfect cultured pearls in front of media representatives just to put on a spectacle and market his brand even more. At the 1926 World Exposition in Philadelphia, Mikimoto brought a Liberty Bell encrusted completely in pearls to put on display.

During the heyday of the old generation of Hollywood starlets in the 1950s and 1960s, Mikimoto cultured pearls were the talk of the town. Nevertheless, the fashion world embraced pearls even before that period. It is undisputable that the popularization of the gem that came with the invention of farms greatly contributed to this accessibility.

The fame of the jewel is widely attributed to Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, founder of the eponymous esteemed fashion house. At the peak of her career, the revered designer’s signature style often included wearing strands upon strands of pearls paired with a little black dress or simple blouse. She was notorious for mixing natural and cultivated pearl necklaces with plastic ones.

Financial Ups and Downs in the Industry
Decades ago, luscious strands of cultured pearls used to be draped across the necks of high-profile celebrities in the film and fashion industry, such as Coco Chanel or Audrey Hepburn. Former First Lady of the United States Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was also a notorious admirer of this type of jewelry.

However, the moment that completely engrained Mikimoto pearls in our collective cultural consciousness was when baseball star Joe DiMaggio gifted a strand to his silver-screen goddess and style icon wife Marilyn Monroe in 1954. As consumer demand increased, the pearls started getting treated with various chemicals to perfect their aspect, which decreased their worth.

Over the course of the last few decades, natural pearls have slowly, but surely, regained their primacy in the industry. As explained by Christie’s auction house senior international jewelry director David Warren, a necklace valued at 15,000 dollars in the 1990s will now sell for over 150,000 dollars.

This shift in perception for the industry is best observed in auction prices. For example, the 302.68-grain drop-shaped pearl La Regente, which Napoleon Bonaparte had once given to his wife Josephine, was sold for 143,000 dollars in 1987, then subsequently for 859,000 dollars one year later after its provenance had been proved.

Back in 2005, La Regente was appraised at 2.5 million dollars, which is a decided increase that perfectly illustrates how pearls regained their superiority status from the beginning of the 2000s onward. Today, pearls are once again draped across the lovely necks and wrists of Hollywood’s glitterati, where they belong.

Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, wife to Price William of Great Britain and formerly known as Kate Middleton, has brought pearls back into the public spotlight for good. She rarely leaves the house without her signature pearl-drop earrings, which she’s been wearing since 2012. And she isn’t the only public personality to incorporate similar accessories into their outfits.

The former First Lady of the United States of America Michelle Obama is also a fan, as are high-profile actresses such as Angelina Jolie, Keira Knightley, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Scarlett Johansson. This is a clear indicator of how pearls have made their comeback in the fashion industry and conquered the financial market all at once.

The Bottom Line
Pearls have been the world’s most precious fashion statement for thousands of years. Although their popularization in the twentieth century led to a decline in interest and price, the gems got back on their feet quickly enough and are now dominating the market once again. Don’t be surprised if you spot your favorite celebrity rocking them on the red carpet!

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