- Pauline Keller
Pearls in the current of time
Next to my own skin, her pearls. My mistress
bids me wear them, warm them, until evening
when I’ll brush her hair. At six, I place them
round her cool, white throat. At day I think of her,
resting in the Yellow Room, contemplating silk
or taffeta, which gown tonight? She fans herself
whilst I work willingly, my slow heat entering
each pearl. Slack on my neck her rope.
These are the first two paragraphs of “Warming Her Pearls”, a love poem by Carol Ann Duffy, written in 1987. It tells the story of an intimate love affair between a servant girl and her mistress. In this writing, the pearls symbolise the class distinction between the lady and the servant. Hundreds if not thousands of other artworks of all kinds use similar analogies related to pearls. Yet, despite their frequent affiliation with wealth and social status, there is more meaning behind those little gems, than what we can see at first glance.
Pearls are known as the world’s oldest gemstone. From ancient Egypt to Tahiti and all over China, pearls were seen as creations of gods, angels, dragons, and other mythical creatures. They were considered the ultimate status symbol in ancient Rome, when Julius Caesar passed a law limiting the wearing of pearls only to the ruling classes.
Due to their presence in history, pearls have become shrouded in myth and legend. Subsequently, they became one of the most commonly appearing symbols and accessories in art. In Sandro Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”, the artist depicted the goddess herself as the pearl emerging from a shell. Here, it is used to symbolise femininity, purity, and innocence.
During the 16th century, many artists painted portraits of aristocrats covered in pearl jewellery. One painting of this kind was “Elizabeth I when a Princess”, a portrait of the young Tudor which emphasises her royal birth. After she claimed the throne, she has been portrayed many times wearing pearls. It was even said that she chose her accessories purposefully to associate herself with the symbolism of purity and divinity.
Kokichi Mikimoto, a Japanese entrepreneur was credited with creating the first cultured pearl in the early 1920s and thereby marking the beginning of pearl mass production which made them widely accessible. Even after the era of big elaborate gowns and regal clothing, pearls are still present in postmodern and contemporary fashion trends. Around the 40s and 50s, they were still viewed as status symbols and were often worn by celebrities like actress Audrey Hepburn in the cult-classic “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” or designer Coco Chanel as a symbol of feminine elegance and luxury. The ripping-pearl-trope became a recurring theme in cinema, in which a female protagonist dramatically rips the string of pearls around her neck. This trope is often used to symbolise the visceral rejection of femininity, social class and the corresponding oppressing environment. However, through fashion icons like Marilyn Monroe and later Carrie Bradshaw from “Sex and the City”, pearls were able to shed their traditionally conservative reputation. Suddenly, they were seen as seductive and ethereal. The people wearing it were considered “cool” and “in fashion”. The connotation of “your grandmother’s pearls” no longer held true!
Even last year, pearls were once again rejuvenated through the “Pearlcore” aesthetic, previously predicted by Pinterest's 2022 Trend Report. The old favourite has been reworked to fit contemporary mood boards. Trough often associated with wealth and “preppy” aesthetics, iridescent accessories are now used to add edge and texture to an outfit.
Moreover, pearls cannot just be worn as a fashion item- but also as a political statement. Whilst it used to be commonplace for aristocratic men like Henry VIII to be seen wearing robes embroidered with pearls, after the 18th century, they were mostly worn by women. Throughout music-history, multiple queer pop legends like David Bowie or Elton John have made it their mission to break traditional gender stereotypes. Recently, popular heterosexual artists like Pharrell Williams, A$AP Rocky, and Harry Styles have continued this mission. Whilst gender-nonconforming and traditionally masculine styles and silhouettes used to be the norm for men on red carpets, more and more celebrities are pushing against gender norms. Regardless, we should never forget that most of these gender-bending styles have been seen before in ballroom culture, drag scenes, and other LGBTQ+ subcultures. So, although this trend of men embracing their femininity through their wardrobe is by no means “revolutionary”, the fact that straight mainstream celebrities like Harry Styles partake, benefits the fight against this stigma.
Evidently, pearl jewellery has clearly undergone an evolution during the last couple of centuries. Overall, we as a society have come a long way since “Warming Her Pearls”. Although they will probably always be linked to luxury, they are no longer just for the white (female) upper class to enjoy!