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Lustrous Pearls through Time

Posted by Penny Brill on

For centuries, pearls have been coveted for their beauty.  Once considered the ultimate symbol of wealth and status, only royalty and upper nobility were allowed to wear pearls in many European countries during the Medieval and Renaissance periods. 

During the 16th and 17th centuries, South Sea pearls were discovered and brought to Europe. Empress Eugenie of France later introduced the Black South Sea Pearl Necklace in the 1850's. Pearls were fashionably irreplaceable with multiple strands, chokers and brooches in the late 19th century; becoming a symbol for anyone of means. 

With demand high and the supply of oysters running low, imitation pearls made from Mother of Pearl and glass became prominent.  During the early 1900's with the ability to travel the world, Eastern and Western cultures mixed. Art Nouveau jewelry began mixing pearls with soft tone gemstones and enamel. Baroque pearls are appreciated for their natural shape. The Edwardian period steps it up, sewing pearls into clothes, hat pins, hair accessories and cuffs. Excess was key: if you could afford it then flaunt it. 

In 1916 Mikimoto receives a patent for a process to cultivate (farming) pearls in Japan, changing the industry forever. The 1920's Art Deco designs introduce sharp lines and simplicity, long strands and drop earrings with symmetry are the new fashion. Coco Channel is credited with bringing costume jewelry into fashionable acceptance, allowing the masses to enjoy jewelry. The 30's bring even more change, the cultured (Akoya) pearls are readily available and the natural pearl because of the price difference has lost its allure. 

Moving Pictures are also making a new found impact, Diamonds sparkle better under Hollywood lights and so jewelers begin adjusting inventory.  Plastic pearls and other forms of imitation are helping increase the use of costume accessories.  Three strand short necklaces (cultured or faux) are the style.  Costume jewelry truly hit its market in the 1940's.  Thankfully the 50's introduces the elegant demure little pearl strand, graduated or uniform, thanks to Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. 

The 60's and 70's have the jewelry industry split between the rebellion against tradition, values and environmental concerns which brought us lots of colorful plastic beads and plated costume whimsical animal designs with synthetic stone bellies versus the super wealthy Hollywood stars and political leaders such as Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy, wearing large decadent new and old (sometimes historical) natural stone and pearl jewelry.  

Pearls are once again considered elegant, classy and for the affluent in the 1980's with large credit going to Princess Diana's impact on fashion.  The Chinese finally produced a Freshwater pearl in the 1990's that can compete with the Japanese freshwater from Biwa Lake.  Producing various styles, shapes and colors with low price points, some competing with costume prices.  Some are so spherical it can be difficult to identify if it is Akoya or Freshwater.

The twenty-first century saw a decline in pearl sales, but we may be in for a treat.  Voque's Jewelry Runway Trends for Fall/Winter 2016/17 Fashion Week have reintroduced the pearl.  Some of the designers show multi strands of various shapes while others show the classic single strand necklace. Others are modeling the single pearl drop.  The best news is, we can wear pearls with blue jeans!  Lets get our pearls out Ladies!  

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