In the world of gems, value is determined by beauty and scarcity. Once upon a time, pearls had both. Silky, smooth and symmetrical, they have been coveted for millennia for their loveliness. Formed when an oyster secretes nacre in response to the introduction of a foreign body (not necessarily a grain of sand: just as likely, though less romantically, debris excreted by a fish) they rarely occur naturally. Left to themselves, one oyster in 10,000 produces a pearl.
So desirable are they that, by the early 20th century, pearl-producing oysters were headed for extinction. Then Kokichi Mikimoto invented the cultured pearl, and Japan started to produce the perfectly round, colour-matched white Akoya pearls that decorated the necks of Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe and the millions of women who wanted to look like them.
By the 1980s the industry had spread far beyond Japan, and beyond the white, classical pearl. Indonesia and the Philippines produced great big golden South Sea pearls (from Pinctada maxima oysters) and French Polynesia produced the exotic “black” Tahitians (from the black-lipped Pinctada margaritifera). As varieties proliferated, so did styles: Nancy Reagan and Margaret Thatcher did “power pearls”, Inès de La Fressange wore hers with jeans and a T-shirt, while Princess Diana favoured endless versions of the choker.
Producers could hardly keep up, says Peter Bracher, executive director of Paspaley, an Australian firm. “Even in the mid-80s, high-quality South Sea pearls were still super-rare, so farming was a very, very profitable business. It was pretty crazy.” Michael Hakimian, a third-generation pearl trader and the ceo of Yoko London, recalls: “Demand outstripped supply by three to one, five to one. I can’t tell you how many times I could re-sell a good lot within minutes of stepping out of the auction room.”
This triggered a “pearl rush” with countless new producers – from the Philippines to Indonesia and Myanmar, as well as Australia and Tahiti – setting up farms. China joined the game, producing tonnes of pearls from freshwater mussels.
Pearls were still beautiful, but they were no longer scarce. Oversupply combined with the fickleness of fashion to bring about the inevitable crash. By the early 2000s, says Hakimian, sales of classical pearls had dropped by a quarter from their peak in the early 1990s. Hakimian had accumulated a vast stock of pearls that the market didn’t really want. “The quality was superb but the colours were unusual and the shapes not always round,” he says. “The question was how to market pearls in a different way and our answer was strong design.” He mixed freshwater pearls with saltwater ones – unheard-of at the time – and complemented vividly coloured pearls with gemstones.
Rosario Autore was forced to be similarly creative. His company, Autore, had begun farming South Sea pearls in 1991, at the height of the boom. “There just aren’t enough women in the world to buy classical necklaces and it became clear that if our industry was to have longevity, pearls needed to appeal to a wider demographic,” he says. “We had to find a way to put pearls on a par with other gemstones.” In 2003 Autore started a jewellery business, using pearls not in their traditional solo role but as an element in design-led jewels.
Even when pearls are white or perfectly round, designers have ripped up the rule book, fashioning pearls into light-hearted, storytelling pieces that can be worn every day, anywhere. Bina Goenka uses thousands of minute seed pearls to embellish everything from a pearl bib to ear cuffs in her couture collections. Bibi van der Velden harnesses the rounded shape of pearls to suggest planets in her boho-chic Galaxy collection, and uses the dark glow of Tahitian pearls to complement the vivid iridescence of beetle elytra in her Scarab collection. In Lydia Courteille’s pendant earrings, baroque pearl drops are held by monkeys and hang from coiled snakes. Daniela Villegas contrasts pearls with porcupine quills and uses them to accent the gold “bones” of an articulated frog’s skeleton.
The grand jewellers are still using the biggest, roundest and most perfect pearls they can get their hands on. But they, too, are treating pearls more like other stones, and mixing them together. In its Seven Seas collection, Van Cleef & Arpels combined Tahitian and white South Sea pearls in a bracelet, held together by bands of turquoises and sapphires so that they recall the massed domes of an ancient Silk Road city’s skyline. Hermès, in its Haute Bijouterie IV collection, turned multiple rows of huge pearls, graduated from creamy white to almost black, into a necklace and cuff fit for a warrior queen. De Grisogono uses pearls to counterbalance the glitter of faceted stones and deliberately mismatches the colours in pairs of earrings. Chanel includes pearls in all of its High Jewellery collections, mixing them with rock crystal, onyx, lacquer or multi-coloured sapphires.
Tasaki – as may be expected of the world’s biggest producer of Akoya pearls – has kept the perfect white pearl at the heart of its jewellery designs. But when Thakoon Panichgul, a fashion designer, became Tasaki’s creative director in 2009, he introduced those pearls in boldly graphic, clean-lined designs unlike anything previously seen. In her recent designs for Tasaki, Melanie Georgacopoulos sliced pearls open and set them with the cut surfaces exposed – sacrilege to some, but a brilliant new way to wear the gem and understand how it is formed.
Mikimoto, too, has become bolder and looser. In the past few years it has created a series of spectacular body-pieces, typically comprising more than a dozen strands that can be draped around the torso in various ways, reaching from shoulders to waist or even to the thighs. Pearl-addicts of the past – Queens Isabella of Spain and Elizabeth I of England, and any number of Indian maharajahs and Russian tsarinas – would surely have approved. Even plain white strands have become cool again, when worn with a bad-girl attitude and in great quantity – think of Lady Gaga, with faux pearls glued to her face or her shoes, her neck draped with long strands of real pearls.
Alongside all this novelty, and quite separate from it, the market for natural pearls has begun to flourish once again, having been moribund for decades. “Collectors from the [Gulf] region are buying back their heritage,” says Susan Abeles, director of jewellery at Bonhams USA. They are beautiful, scarce and still exquisitely valuable.