When you think of pearls, you might think of a kind of Holly Golightly elegance—or perhaps, if you’re a Canadian d’un certain âge, Anne (of Green Gables) Shirley’s engagement ring (“Pearls are for tears, the old legend says”). You might even think of grandmas and twinsets. What you probably don’t have in mind is the word cool.
Yet the past year or so has seen a huge resurgence in pearls’ popularity, with everyone from Dua Lipa and Gigi Hadid to Harry Styles and A$AP Rocky being photographed in them recently. “Pearl jewelry has absolutely seen a spike in popularity. We think this resurgence is, in part, due to the way that pearl jewelry has evolved in recent years,” says Katie Reusch, marketing director of Bijoux Birks. “Though a string of pearls will always be classic, modern interpretations and trend-driven styling have created a newfound interest in this category.” The brand’s Rock & Pearl collection, which combines freshwater pearls with edgy silver studs, is one example of how this is being done. Reusch points out that pearls are now trending for men, too—in fact, Bijoux Birks included them in their Men’s Holiday Gift Guide for the first time last year.
David Yurman is also taking things beyond the pearl necklace. “As an artist, I never allowed myself to follow the ‘rules’ of fine jewelry—I wanted to redefine them,” he says. “I combined pearls with gold and silver beads, and different gemstones. I also loved the lustre and raw beauty of mabé pearls. We created necklaces, bracelets and pendants celebrating their wabi-sabi aesthetic.”
Sarah Power, founder of shopping community Inland, says that the new pearls have a Madonna feel. “There’s the edginess, the punkiness and the grittiness. The idea of luxury is a weird one for younger generations. It’s not seen as fabulous, it’s seen as pretentious and performative. Gen Z is really taking the whole concept and transforming it, as they are doing with many of the things we have in culture.” She also references brands like Mejuri, with its modern minimalist aesthetic.
Technically speaking, pearls are made when calcium carbonate crystalizes inside a mollusk to create an iridescent orb. This can happen in nature, but most real pearls these days are cultured in farms. “They belong to a classification of gemstones known as organic, meaning they are one of the only gemstones that come from a living creature,” Reusch explains.
It can be challenging to find high-quality ones. “Our biggest challenge is finding the pearls, especially our signature pear-shaped pearls,” says a Chaumet rep, which is why the brand often sources from vintage pieces. Working with pearls can also be difficult. “Creating pearl jewelry is like creating a painting. We can spend hours combining texture and colour,” according to Yurman. “Matching pearls, especially coloured ones, is also very difficult. We need to consider many different factors like shape, size, colour, lustre level, overtone, blemish level and nacre thickness.”
Adds Reusch: “There are instances where we have a great design that requires a certain shape, and we cannot source the specific type of pearl we are looking for. At times like this, we may need to change our design. Flexibility is key when working with natural materials like pearls. We also need to be creative in how we assemble the pearls so that there is movement in the pieces. We try to ensure that any metal shows as little as possible, as this can distract from the design and beauty of the pearls.”
When it comes to styling, anything goes. Yurman likes to combine them with edgier chain pieces, while Reusch says using baroque pearls (with an irregular shape) can be a great way to make a statement. “I find pearls so versatile—much more versatile than diamonds,” says Power. “You can go from small for everyday and keep increasing the size as the event gets formal. I love them mixed with lace to draw on the classic idea and make you think of Madonna.”
You can also think outside the (jewelry) box and look for pearl-adorned accessories like bags and keychains or hair accessories. Chatters brand ambassador and celebrity hairstylist Cindy Duplantis has designed embellished bobby pins and a headband. “You can use headbands as a great hair hack for day three or four unwashed hair, or to simply keep your fringe up and away from your face,” she suggests. “Pearl pins can take your look from an everyday hairstyle to elevated glam. Use them to hold your hair or bangs to the side to give a polished look or, when creating a top knot, instead of using a regular bobby pin slip one of these in to make it more modern.”
Above all, it’s about being playful, rather than reverential or precious. “Personal style can speak through one object in such a spectrum of ways,” Power says. “You can go Value Village and pull out the pearls or delve into grandma’s jewelry box. The way people style them now really speaks to the whole idea of styling and fashion as a collecting art, rather than just buying objects.” —Aileen Lalor