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Oct 19, 2023

Pearls, Time-Honored Tradition, Timeless Elegance

Thousands of years ago, a Stone Age village flourished on what is now Marawah Island, part of the modern-day United Arab Emirates.  The village inhabitants lived in permanent stone houses, raised sheep and goats, and traded goods.  In 2019, archaeologists on Marawah discovered a beautiful pink pearl.  Carbon dating revealed the pearl to be approximately 8,000 years old, and experts believe the jewel arrived in the community through trade with Mesopotamia.  Dubbed the Abu Dhabi Pearl, it is believed to be the oldest natural pearl in the world.

Only one gem appears as the product of a living creature.  The pearl’s incredible journey from gritty irritant to lustrous treasure has likely captivated and inspired humankind since we discovered them in harvested shellfish.  With a variety of colors from white to black, the ubiquitous pearl enlivens our world through our language, culture, and spiritual practices.  Ancient Greeks called them “tears of the gods.”

The earliest record of pearl trading comes from China around 2300 BCE, when Chinese royalty accepted pearls as gifts of respect.  The “Susa Pearls,” the world’s oldest pearl necklace, contains 216 pearls bound in bronze wire and is estimated to date from 420 BCE.  Ancient Romans of great wealth wore pearls to indicate their high status. Egypt’s Queen Cleopatra, according to lore, wore a pair of enormous pearl earrings, allegedly grinding one into wine to win a bet with Marc Antony.

The royal houses of Europe each had long love affairs with the jewel of the sea, but perhaps none so storied as that of Elizabeth I of England.  Pearls are dominant in all her portraits, symbolizing her purity and power.  Centuries later, Queen Elizabeth II would also frequently appear in a favorite 3-stranded pearl necklace, a gift from her father George VI.

The most famous pearl in the world, La Peregrina, has a 500-year history.  The 55-plus carat pearl was discovered off the coast of Panama, crossed the ocean to become a gift from King Philip II of Spain to Queen Mary I of England, and then returned to Spain upon Mary’s death.  Napoleon Bonaparte took possession of the pearl when he conquered Spain in 1808; subsequently, Napoleon III sold the pearl to address financial woes.  In 1969, actor Richard Burton bought La Peregrina at auction for $37,000 as a gift for his wife, actress Elizabeth Taylor.  In 2011, Taylor’s collection went on the auction block.  La Peregrina brought a record price of $11 million.  It’s no wonder that La Peregrina is also referred to by its other name, “The Wanderer.”

Like Liz Taylor, many other iconic women also favor pearls. Coco Chanel, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy, Barbara Bush, and Sarah Jessica Parker each embraced pearls as tokens of status, strength, and style. Kamala Harris inspired scores of American women to “wear pearls on inauguration day” to celebrate the United States’ first woman Vice President.  First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden, counts  pearls among her favorites.  She can often be spotted in a three-stranded pearl necklace or simple pearl studs.

Today, pearls are a versatile accessory for all kinds of occasions.  “Pearlcore” has been named one of the top trends for 2023.  The trend encourages playful and innovative ways of incorporating pearls into your ensemble. A simple, small-scale pearl necklace gives elegance to an everyday office look or a little black cocktail dress.  Layer sizes and lengths for to create a bold, rich look for evening.  Men are also sporting pearl accessories, including choker-style necklaces to studs and drop earrings.  The timeless class of pearls means that you can buy them today for the trend, but count on them as a staple accessory for years to come.  Do you have treasured pearls in your collection?

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