Our Obsession with Pearls
Pearls are timeless, but which type should you buy and why?
Our obsession with pearls has lasted for millennia. In ancient Greek mythology, pearls were said to be tears of joy cried by Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. It has been reported that the first evidence of pearl hunting, found near the Indian Ocean, dates back to around 5000 BC. (bbc.com, 2021)
Whilst popular through the ages, celebrities like Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy brought pearls into the limelight in the 1950s and 1960s. Jackie Kennedy wore pearls on a regular basis and is reported to have said, "Pearls are always appropriate". (thepearlsource.com, 2021) Being an elegant First Lady, she cemented the view of pearls as a sophisticated accessory.
Pearls are still very much in fashion, and have been worn in recent years by celebrities including Rihanna, Sienna Miller, Harry Styles, Gigi Hadid, Billie Eilish and Dua Lipa.
In terms of modern day options, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing which pearls to buy. There are faux/imitation pearls, cultured pearls and natural pearls to choose from.
Faux/imitation pearls, which have been made for centuries, are often made by coating glass beads with a mixture of varnish and fish scales. They can also be made with plastic or by coating glass beads with a mineral called mica. Faux pearls are an affordable and pretty option. However, due to having a perfect roundness they look less natural than other options. The coating may also chip with time. Although, I must admit that the faux pearl necklace I bought from Claire's Accessories as a teenager is still in very good condition. It would seem that Jackie Kennedy was happy to wear imitation pearls, and she is reported to have owned a necklace that cost only $35 when originally bought in the 1950s. The necklace is reported to have eventually sold for $212,000 at an auction in 1996. (medium.com, 2019) I really like the faux pearl double necklace option, shown below, by Zara.
Cultured pearls were first created in 1893 by Kokichi Mikimoto. Before 1893, real pearls were incredibly rare as natural pearls form in only one of ten thousand oysters. Mikimoto's creation of cultured pearls made 'real' pearls far more widely available. He even stated, "My dream is to adorn the necks of all women around the world with pearls." Cultured pearls are created, with human intervention, by imitating the way in which a natural pearl forms. According to Natural History Museum, "Pearls are made by marine oysters and freshwater mussels as a natural defence against an irritant such as a parasite entering their shell or damage to their fragile body. The oyster or mussel slowly secretes layers of aragonite and conchiolin, materials that also make up its shell." To create cultured pearls the initial irritant is usually created by a farmer inserting a tiny, man-made bead into the shell. This kicks-off the same process of self preservation, and the creation of a pearl. Cultured pearls are also often referred to as freshwater pearls or saltwater pearls. Saltwater pearls cost more than freshwater pearls. This is because with saltwater pearls an oyster will only create one pearl and with freshwater pearls an oyster will create up to thirty at a time.
Cultured pearls have received backlash by a number of sources since their inception. In 1921, it was claimed by a London newspaper that cultured pearls are purely imitations and should not be referred to as pearls. However, this sparked a court case, referred to as 'the Paris trial', in which Mikimoto eventually won the right to sell his creations as pearls. This court case also created a worldwide reputation for Mikimoto, a company that is still strong today. Whist cultured pearls often supply an affordable option, Mikimoto pieces range in price from a few hundred pounds to over ten thousand pounds. This is due to their high reputation, exquisite design and use of high quality materials such as 18k gold and high quality diamonds. The Mikimoto earrings shown below are made with diamonds and 18k white gold. They are priced at a whopping £14,300.
In the 21st century, cultured pearls have become part of a very different debate. Whilst they are attractive, varied in style and affordable, pearls have been deemed by PETA as an exploitation of oysters. They warn that buyers should, "think twice before wearing pearls", and argue that the culturing of pearls is a cruel act:
"Having their protective shells pried open by humans is a presumably frightening and painful experience." (PETA, 2022)
For me this raises the question of whether or not an oyster can feel pain as surely an oyster is a creature that doesn't have sentience? PETA even refer to this question themselves:
"While we don’t yet know whether bivalves can feel pain in the same way we do, we can observe that oysters snap their shells tightly shut when they’re disturbed by touch or even when they sense loud noises. Their response indicates an understanding of the potential danger if their shell is pried open, especially since the process commonly results in the death of half the oysters." (PETA, 2022)
I feel a great amount of respect for PETA as an organisation. I greatly admire their stance on the vast majority of animal welfare issues. I also feel that the fashion industry is one of many industries who should deeply consider the views of PETA and adjust their practices accordingly. One example of this being PETA's stance on the fur industry. However, I don't personally view the culturing of pearls as a cruel practice as I don't imagine that oysters feel pain. I sometimes wear a small pink, cultured pearl necklace and I even have some of these necklaces for sale in my Depop shop. However, I do appreciate that we should always consider the source of a product and decide if its creation aligns with our beliefs and values. I therefore appreciate that PETA spread awareness about the source of particular goods within the fashion industry. Imitation pearls are a better, affordable option if you don't like the way in which cultured pearls are created. It's also worth noting that PETA warn against buying imitation pearls made with fish scales as they aren't vegan and recommend plastic and glass pearls instead.
Marilyn Monroe owned a Mikimoto cultured pearl necklace. It was given to her by Joe DiMaggio during their ten day Japanese honeymoon in 1954. Marilyn famously sang the line "Diamonds are a girls best friend", but apparently this pearl necklace was one of her most loved and cherished treasures. Marilyn's pearl necklace has been shown in exhibitions worldwide, and was even reported to be in a Mikimoto exhibition in 2010. (professionaljeweller.com, 2010)
Finally, let's look at natural pearls. Their rarity makes them highly valuable, and sought after by those who can afford them. Naturally formed pearls tend to have a more irregular shape like the famous Hope Pearl. The Hope Pearl is said to have once belonged to King Louis XIV of France in the 17th century. (winterson.co.uk, 2019)
Elizabeth Taylor famously owned La Peregrina Pearl. Whilst natural, the pearl has a beautifully formed pear shape. The necklace was previously owned by European dynasties, and depicted by famous painters including Peter Paul Rubens.
"Wealth, beauty and spiritual purity: these were all the associated qualities of pearls when La Peregrina – the largest example yet seen – was discovered in the Gulf of Panama in the late 1500s." (BBC.com, 2021)
Whichever type of pearls you choose to buy there are beautiful options available. Below are some more pictures of my favourite pearl jewellery pieces available today. Let me know what your stance is on the PETA imitation pearl debate and which type of pearls you like to wear in the comments. Also, which of the pearl jewellery items that I have shared do you like the most?
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