By Janet Kelly
PEARLS—traditional single or double strands of cultured, freshwater, even some South Sea varieties— are just not as valuable as they used to be or we believed they were. That’s what two Pittsburgh jewelers recently told me. To verify, I checked prices on eBay and Live Auctioneers. Let’s just say it encouraged me to keep rather than sell a pearl bracelet, although I no longer wear it.
True, the real thing may not be worth as much as it was in its heyday, but the flattering-to-the-face look of pearls doesn’t go out of style—particularly in and around the White House. Think first ladies: Jackie Kennedy and Barbara Bush, who both preferred Kenneth Lane faux pearls over the real thing. Michelle Obama was fond of her genuine signature double strands but also, like Bush, wore gumball-size faux pearls. And she favored and frequently wore multiple strands with other faux stones, designed by Tom Binns.
Vice President Kamala Harris’s trademark jewelry is a pearl necklace, which she doesn’t hesitate to dress down with her Converse sneakers or Timberland boots. On inaugural day, she wore pearls framed in a chunky gold necklace, while the collar of Jill Biden’s dress was embroidered with pearls and crystals. At last year’s Super Bowl, the inaugural’s brilliant young poet Amanda Gorman wore a pearl headband crowning her updo.
You don’t have to go to the White House, though, to see pearls in action. Right there on your television screen we’ve all been able to watch Amy Schneider rock a string of pearls as she made her way to the tippy-top of the Jeopardy! heap, second in earnings only to Ken Jennings.
The pearl has emerged from tradition, thanks to designers such as Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, who dressed a model in a pearl balaclava for a recent runway show, and Simone Rocha, who in a collaboration with H&M, playfully placed pearls on coats and on the toes of black lace-up shoes. They and others all owe a debt to Coco Chanel, who modernized pearls in the 1920s, mixing and layering precious stones with faux. She recognized the commercial potential in fake pearls and was the first to use them on the catwalk.
Sequins may be everywhere this holiday season, but for a subtler glow, go with pearls like the ones we’ve got on our radar below:
LEFT: Lizzie Fortunato goes for a modern mix: she pairs an 18k gold-plated collar with a strand of 26-29mm cultured freshwater baroque pink pearls and another with sparkling white crystals. The necklace length is adjustable from 14.5 to 18.5 inches; it’s $435 at Saks Fifth Avenue.
RIGHT: Coco Chanel wouldn’t leave her atelier without her pearls. Fifty-plus years after her death, they continue to play a prominent role in the fashion giant’s designs. From the house’s pre-fall 2022 runway, a sheer black tulle skirt dotted with feathers and pearls.
LEFT: This crew-neck cardigan with imitation pearl buttons and details could be mistaken for Chanel, but Hong Kong label B +AB’s price tag is far more wallet friendly. The wool-blend sweater with twinkly metallic thread is $210 at Farfetch.
RIGHT: A shrug-like cardigan embellished with faux pearls casts a glow on you and fancies up a blue tuxedo. It is $160 at Anthropologie.
ABOVE LEFT: Eighty-year-old designer Vivienne Westwood, best known for her association with the punk movement of the ’70s and ’80s, is attracting new audiences, as a result of the many times her 1990 three-strand pearl (glass bead) choker has appeared on TikTok. With her orb logo, combining royal British symbols with outer space symbolism, Westwood riffs on tradition and looks to the future. Featured on most pieces in her jewelry line (seen here on her Drop Earrings ), it’s adorned with multi-colored Swarovski crystals and a large hanging pearl. It sells for $275 on the Vivienne Westwood site.
RIGHT: A statement necklace that you can wear every day, Clare V.’s Jumbo Pearls ($145) (they’re pearl-coated wood beads) are hand knotted with navy and poppy thread; the lobster claw closure is finished with a flourish of a blue-and-red leather tie.
BELOW LEFT: Lush black suede meets white pearls on Kate Spade New York’s two-inch kitten-heel pumps ($228, Zappos). A glittering jewel charm at the vamp strap adds another touch of glam to this pointy pair of pumps.
ABOVE LEFT: Inspired by Yayoi Kusama’s artwork at the New York Botanical Garden, Lizzie Fortunato’s single-strand Cosmic Nature bracelet mingles freshwater keshi pearls with colorful matte millefiori glass beads. It’s $175 at Shopbop.
RIGHT: Faux round pearls are designer Simone Rocha’s signature—from her drop earrings to her pearl-embellished clutches, coats and cardigans, such as this alpaca and wool cable knit, trimmed with lustrous buttons. It’s reduced from $895 to $488 at Moda Operandi. Limited sizes available.
LEFT: A row of faux pearl buttons edging the v-neck of Kate Spade’s wool-blend cardigan, plus a slightly puffed sleeve, give the sweater an elegant vibe. Wear it over leather leggings or black velvet trousers to make any occasion festive. It’s $509 at Farfetch.
ABOVE RIGHT: Lebanese artisans experiment with different materials and shapes to create Vanina’s fanciful handbags and jewelry. The hobo-shaped L’Échappé clutch, in a velvet-like fabric, is topped with a pearl handle to carry the bag on your shoulder or by hand. It’s reduced from $244 to $171 at Farfetch.
BELOW RIGHT: Who said brogues have to be utilitarian and plain? Not Stuart Weitzman, whose tasseled leather loafers ($502, Farfetch) are lined with pearls above their practical flat rubber sole.
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