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STYLE CULTURE

 
 

P E A R L S

Winter Whites!

   

 

Yesterday the snow drifted down and braceleted the bare branches outside our windows in pearls and diamonds and crystals.  The winter white Olympics on television every night.  It's fashion week in New York, and we decided to turn instead to style, to the timelessness of pearls (faux, cultured, or natural) with all their connotations....  Shakespeare, in a time when pearls were in vogue, even adorning the neck of Queen Elizabeth in both portrait and real life, spoke of them only in metaphorical terms; pearls were either tears, or a symbol for things priceless.  Always oriental.

 

The liquid drops of tears that you have shed

Shall come again, transform'd to orient pearl (Richard III)

 

What guests were in her eyes, which parted thence

As pearls from diamonds dropp'd. (King Lear)

 

Shakespeare associated pearls with India, his use of 'orient pearl' occurs more than once in his writings.  'Her bed is India; there she lies, a pearl' (Troilus and Cressida) to the famous line from Othello: "...the base Indian [who] threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe' (much scholarly discussion about whether Shakespeare meant Indian or Judean, but  there are his other associations of pearls with India and the Orient; nevertheless Desdemona is here the pearl!

 

Pearls as symbols of luxury; Caesar limited their use (along with purple robes and the use of litters for traveling) in his sumptuary laws.   Cleopatra dissolving one of her large pearl earrings in vinegar as a symbol of extravagance...and so much more!  Biblical references to pearls abound: gates like pearls, casting pearls before swine, a pearl of great price.  In the Baroque era we have Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665): here a large luminous tear-like pearl earring, thought to be a symbol of chastity and of the orient (the exotic also emphasized by the turban); Vermeer has many of the women in his paintings wearing pearls, even weighing pearls....  Indian maharajahs disported themselves with extravagant strands—there are the famous Baroda Pearls, auctioned by Christie's in 2007, that date back to the 19th Century. 

 

The allure of the pearl as fashionable accessory grew at the turn of the 20th century.  Tiffany & Co. commissioned extravagant pearl necklaces from famed sculptor and designer Paulding Farnham.  In 1917, Pierre Cartier bought the Beaux Arts Plant Mansion on Fifth Avenue for a hundred dollars and a pearl necklace valued at one million dollars.  Coco Chanel took pearls to new lengths, piling strand upon strand, taking her cue perhaps from those peacocky Indian Maharajas—she was after all famous for transforming menswear influences into feminine fashion!  By mid-century, pearls were synonymous with a certain sense of glamour—think of Jackie O’s famous strands or perhaps the most iconic image of chic in cinematic history—Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, faux pearls now worn with such elegant insouciance.

 

Natural pearls are thought to form when a grain of sand or parasite enters a shell—the oyster secretes chemicals as a defense mechanism against the intruder until a nacreous pearl is formed—how brilliant that nature should choose to repel unwanted advances by creating something so perfectly beautiful . . . . 

 

 

Shop: Pearls @Tiffany & Co.

 

Shop: Pearls @ J.Crew

 

Shop: Pearls @ Net-a-porter

 

Tags:  jewelry fashion   chanel  shakespeare  cleopatra   india

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Detail from Tiepolo's The Banquet of Cleopatra, 1743-44
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Victoria

 

 

 

 

Pearls festoon the Maharajah of Mysore, 1906

 

 

 

 


The famous Baroda Pearls

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