Pearls are like the little black dress of the jewellery world. They’re timeless, effortlessly elegant and can be dressed up, or down. But how much do you really know about those sought-after beads which dangle from your ears or glisten on your neck?
As the V&A’s Pearls exhibition opens its doors this month, we delve into the history of pearls and have put together a handy guide to help you find some of the finest pearls in London…
Where do pearls come from?
Pearls are one of nature’s most beautiful quirks. When a small particle (like a worm or a tiny piece of shell) finds its way into an oyster shell, it’s treated as an irritant. The oyster shell’s natural defence mechanism kicks in, covering the parasite with layers of a substance called nacre. And a pearl is born.
The mystery which shrouds a pearl’s origins is perhaps what has enchanted so many people throughout the ages: the baffled Greeks thought they were formed from the tears of the Gods and pearls have been associated with the Virgin Mary and Immaculate Conception in Christian times.
Historically, they’ve been sourced by young men, who dive into the water in search of them — often with little protection. And even if they did luck out and catch a shell, there was no guarantee that it would contain a sought-after pearl. The difficulty in actually sourcing pearls is what makes them so precious, and desired.
Some very sophisticated techniques, producing very good results, have been invented to replicate this natural process. But there are also plenty of imitations on the market which a buyer should be wary of.
Pearls: a short history
Pearls have represented various things over time, from chastity, purity and wisdom to an emblem of military victory.
The ancient Greeks wore pearls at weddings, believing that they would help the couple have a happy marriage, while the Romans used them as a show of wealth.
Cleopatra was a lover of pearls. She famously won a bet with her lover, Mark Anthony, with the help of a pearl. After sitting down to a lavish feast, he wagered that the meal could not have been any more expensive or decadent. Cleopatra was quietly confident that it could. She accepted his bet, and asked for some vinegar. She then took one of the pearls she was wearing, dissolved it in the vinegar, drank the liquid up and smiled smugly as an impressed Mark Anthony watched.
The Elizabethans were equally enamoured with pearls. They used them as a status symbol, incorporating them into just about anything from their hairdos to their clothes.
These days, they tend to symbolise understated elegance and class. They’ve been strung around the necks of some of the most timeless beauties and style icons in the world, including Coco Chanel (can you picture her without her signature pearls?), Grace Kelly and Jackie Kennedy. It’s hard to imagine pearls ever going out of fashion.
To get a sense of the history of pearls, stop by the V&A, which is hosting its Pearls exhibition from 21 September 2013 to 19 January 2014.
The show tells the story of how pearls have become such an iconic piece of jewellery from the days of the Roman Empire to the present day. The curators have travelled the world collecting some real showstoppers and historic pieces, including an earring worn by Charles I at his execution and jewellery made for Hollywood royalty like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor.
Pearls: a buying guide
Every single pearl is as unique as a fingerprint, which is what makes them so special.
There are various grading systems for pearls, but you can actually tell a lot just by looking at one. Pearls should have a lustre – a glow from its surface as well as a light from within the pearl. It should look luminous, with an almost mirror-like reflection.
Perfectly rounded pearls tend to be the most desirable, but you may prefer a tear drop, oval or button shaped pearl instead.
Real pearls are likely to have some imperfections on their surface. These are formed when particles in the sea get into the oyster shell. The imperfections only prove that they’re genuinely natural, but the fewer blemishes the better.
Pearls can come in a myriad of hues, from cream through to blush pink, grey, blue and even gold. All-natural pearls which haven’t been artificially tinted will always be more valuable. Generally speaking, you’ll want the colour to be evenly distributed.
Pearls in London
Of course, the best way to ensure you’re getting the finest quality pearls is to track down the very best jewellers, so you know that anything they show you will be made from the best. These are some we would recommend…
• Mikimoto on New Bond Street is renowned for their its high standards and excellent customer service. Its founder, Kokichi Mikimoto, invented a technique to culture pearls by implanting an irritant into an oyster shell, rather than waiting for it to enter naturally.
• The Imperial Pearl Company at Hatton Garden has been procuring the finest pearls for Londoners since 1840, and their staff take great pride in what they do.
• Hemming, found at Hatton Garden, stocks both natural and cultured pearls to suit every budget.
• Coleman Douglas Pearls, found at Beauchamp Place, has a fantastic collection and will also help you track down a piece if you have something particular in mind.
What do you love about pearls?