All art is autobiographical, the pearl
is the oyster’s autobiography.
It takes longer than we can imagine for a woman to grow and bloom into herself. And pearls of wisdom, well, they can take an entire lifetime to accumulate. As the great and aptly named Pearl Bailey wryly observed in her memoir, The Raw Pearl: “There’s a period of life when we swallow knowledge of ourselves, and it becomes either good or sour inside.”
There’s also a period in each woman’s life, when we can wear the jewelry of that inner wisdom. Diamonds may very well be a girl’s best friend, but pearls are a woman’s sacred and secret confidant. In many families a girl receives her first pearl on a simple chain or as a ring for her 16th birthday, symbolizing that she’s become a young lady, with the first string of pearls the gift of coming of age at 21. But I believe it is only decades later before a woman can actually wear pearls properly and only women of a certain age can carry off pearls with panache.
How marvelous that there’s something enchanted that all women can look forward to as we grow gracefully into ourselves. Imagine that you’re having a conversation with a young girl and you’ve just asked her what she wants to be or do when she grows up and she responds, “I want to be a woman who wears pearls!! I agree.
I don’t know about you, but I’m only beginning to appreciate parts of my body that I’ve been oblivious to until now, and considering how many times I ‘ve stuck my neck out, one way or another, I’d like to adorn it with something befitting.
All the world’s great legends, as well as those who aspired to have greatness thrust upon them have worn pearls. Coco Chanel believed that a woman needed ropes and ropes of pearls in her jewelry wardrobe and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis said that no matter what the occasion, pearls were always appropriate. Grace Kelly insisted on wearing pearls in all her movie roles, as did Audrey Hepburn and the Queens of England down through history were and are rarely seen out of pearls.
Whether with casual clothes or when we need to feel “dressed up” pearls, worn lovingly, are my definition of perfect jewelry. Pearls announce that we have taste, sophistication and a sense of style. There are pearls to fit your mood, the occasion, the season or to showcase your physical attributes to their best advantage.
The best part of pearls as adornments is that they don’t have to be “real” especially if the woman wearing them is, and Babe, you are. While pearls were once affordable only by the wealthy, technology and popularity conspired in the last century to make them a gem for all reasons. This may surprise you, as it did me, but the most famous pearl wearers, Coco Chanel and Jackie Kennedy, always wore Czechoslovakian glass pearls because Coco would control the size of the pearls as well as their sheen. And it is said that Queen Elizabeth II routinely swaps her glorious strands for exquisite “paste” pearls. No one would ever dream that royalty would wear anything other than the real thing, what with maharajas, princes and potentates proffering jewels during the long Victorian British Empire years.
I love the thrill of fashionable thrift when it comes to a collecting a pearl wardrobe. Here’s a fun way to think about creating a pearl wardrobe of your own, using the flea market route. Different pearls, different lengths, different moods. This is how I categorize them:
The Little Black Dress: This is the 14 to 16 inch simple strand. The starting place for most women’s pearl wardrobes, it hangs to mid-clavicle or collarbone. I think a woman’s collarbone is one of the most beautiful parts of the feminine form. Show it off!
Collar. Or a choker a la your pet poodle. This sits higher on your neck. Just make sure that yours lies close to the skin. A neck might droop, but no woman’s pearl collar should. Every night Napoleon’s wife, Empress Josephine wore hers to bed, especially when alone. As I said, there’s a pearl necklace for every occasion.
The Princess. This single strand of pearls is 16 to 19 inches long. It hangs to about the top of your lovely décolleté and does wonders with a plunging neckline.
The Bib. Jackie Kennedy, Barbara Bush and the choice of many fashionable women who actually can meet friends for lunch is the three-strand-graduated mainstay. The top strand is collar length; the bottom, the length of a princess strand. This fills in your neckline beautifully. The three strand necklace says you can and you will—whatever the occasion. A great confidence booster.
The Matinee. This strand is cleavage gracing with its 20 inch length. Best over a higher neckline so the only thing you’re revealing is mystery.
The Opera. At 30 inches, this long strand can be doubled or tripled and worn in overlapping rows around the neck. Dowager queens went for these, but so did flappers. These are definitely for those times when more is better and you want pearls coming and going. Follow the example of Mademoiselle Coco.
My favorite pearl find is a faux five-strand from the 1950s that I found in England. It cost me more to get them restrung than to purchase them in the first place, but they are a knockout and look glorious with everything from an old tweed jacket to my best black cocktail dress. These really are the family jewels as far as I’m concerned.
The fascinating paradox about pearls is that their beautiful destiny is conceived through irritation and grows slowly in layers, just as our lives do. Something foreign gets beneath the shell of an oyster, embeds itself and years later emerges in an exquisite new form, as effortless it would seem, as a butterfly from its chrysalis. But to be born—a butterfly, a pearl or a woman-- is a strenuous journey. Still it seems, at least for the butterfly and pearl, that the journey knows exactly where it’s headed. If only we could learn that lesson. If only we could learn to trust that faith, even as small as a piece of grit, could lead us to an iridescent future.
As I finger my favorite pearls— shimmering balls strung together—I marvel at their creation—wholly wondrous after decades of being in the dark and lost. The sacred surrounds all of us hidden in plain sight among the familiar. So this week, if you have any pearl jewelry, don’t leave it unworn in a jewelry box. I’m guessing that there are many strings of pearls waiting for a special occasion to be appreciated.
How about today? Like life and love, pearls thrive on skin contact and will lose their luster if not worn. Although pearls grow in darkness and distress, the luminosity of their beauty, born of imperfection, irritation, and, even sometimes, neglect—like the woman who wears them, can only be revealed in the Light.
Sending you dearest love and always, blessings on our courage.