The Power of Pearls

Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala in his pearl bib

In the September/October special 30th anniversary issue of Veranda (which we will revisit), the style section’s Objects of Desire celebrates Pearl Power – that timeless gem traditionally suited for a 30th anniversary! And while this week we have been bemoaning the havoc mother nature can wreak, pearls are a perfect example of nature at her best and most beautiful.

Veranda Pearl Power

We may associate pearls with the classic (faux) triple strand Jackie Kennedy wore or the modern pop power of Rihanna but the power of pearls throughout history cannot be underestimated. For millennia, and in almost every culture, pearls have held a position of reverence, spirituality and sometimes even the supernatural. Below, in an 18th century Indian miniature, the power of pearls is invoked in a rain dance.

18th c. Indian Miniature

Like other gems, pearls were believed to have talismanic powers. Early Christians considered them a powerful symbol which they also used for decorative purposes. A prayer book, owned by Charles I in the 9th century was adorned with pearls.

Charles I prayer book with pearls

In ancient Asia, pearls were a source of valuable currency as well as a decorative symbol of status and authority. Below, a Yuan dynasty (1277-1368) Chinese empress sporting pearl attire.

empress of China, Yuan dynasty.

And of course there is the famous portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, c. 1585, with her pet ermine and impressive pearl collar.

Queen Elizabeth I showing the power of pearls

More modern royalty have included pearls in many of their important pieces. Below, a crown created for Empress Farah Diba of Iran in 1967 by Van Cleef & Arpels.

Crown of Empress Farah Diba of Iran by Van Cleef

And most will remember Princess Diana’s signature pearl studded tiara (a wedding gift from her mother-in-law), which Kate wore last year to a diplomatic reception at Buckingham Palace.

Kate Middleton / Princess Diana with tiara

But my favorite consumers of pearls might just have been the Maharajas of India. With the rise of British rule in the mid 18th century, Indian princes no longer had to worry about maintaining armies and were free to use their money on building and the luxury trappings of western life. Portraiture became popular and below, Maharaja Sher Singh, painted by August Theodor Schoefft in 1845, is shown covered in jewels and enormous pearls.

Maharaja Sher Singh in pearls

The examples are bountiful but one of my all time favorites is this portrait of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala by Vandyk in 1911 (seen in a favorite tome Made for Maharajahs). Famous for his love of jewels, he commissioned all the best Parisian jewelers, particularly Cartier and Boucheron, to make incredible jeweled works of art, such as the pearl necklace he sports below.

Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala in his pearl bibThis is a mere suggestion of the power of pearls throughout the ages. For a wonderful in-depth look, Pearls: Ornament and Obsession is a book I actually worked on years ago during my publishing days that I can highly recommend. And as the authors explain, “The pearl accurately reflects the preferences, passions, and power structure of every age. Whether religious fervor, artistic expression, political endeavor, or economic achievement, the values and appetites of disparate cultures have been revealed in humanity’s enduring relationship with the pearl.”

Manolo boots with pearlsI thought we could end with a look at a few famous icons of now and then who made pearls a part of their signature look. Above, Ottoman velvet boots Manolo Blahnik designed in 1990 for Diana Vreeland, studded with faux baroque pearls and other stones.

Coco Chanel in pearls
Coco Chanel
Josephine Baker in pearls
Josephine Baker
Grace Kelly in pearls
Grace Kelly
Audrey Hepburn in pearls
Audrey Hepburn
Jackie Kennedy
Jackie Kennedy 1965
Carolina Herrera in pearls
Carolina Herrera
michelle obama in pearls
Michelle Obama
Rihanna in pearls

9 thoughts on “The Power of Pearls

  1. What a diverse collection of photos. Love it. I will definitely get out my pearls this weekend. Mine were individually chosen by a friend at the Pearl Market in Hong Kong; he then had them strung.

  2. I’m in awe of the craftsman who actually created these art pieces so casually worn by the rich and famous. Audrey Hepburn truly did them justice, in my opinion. franki

  3. The Cartier Building at 54th and Fifth was traded for a Double Strands of graduated natural pearls. Now, that’s a love of Pearls !

    • Yes exactly Katherine – Pierre Cartier bought the building with that necklace that, even at the time in 1917, was valued at one million dollars!

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