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Pearls: Modern Twists on Nature’s Classic Treasures

A voyeuristic peek at some lustrous high-end pearls, a gem that has captivated our collective imagination for millennia


charcoal hued tahitian two-tone pendant

Credit: Courtesy of Jessica's Gems Maui

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Jewelry artist David Haake created this exclusive charcoal-hued Tahitian two-tone pendant. The iridescent cultured pearl, encased in white and yellow gold and centered on a braided leather cord, shines with blue and pink overtones. $1,795.

pearls and diamonds intertwine in a cultured South Sea Pearl necklace

Credit: Carlton Davis | Courtesy of Tiffany & Company

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Pearls and diamonds intertwine in an elaborate cultured South Sea Pearl choker from Tiffany's, a renowned pearl source since the 19th century. Abraham Lincoln gave his wife, Mary Todd, Tiffany seed pearl earrings, necklace, bracelet and a brooch (parure set) in celebration of his inauguration. $82,000. 

tiffany & co. art-deco style fan pendants with plique a jour enameling, platinum

Credit: Carlton Davis | Courtesy of Tiffany & Company

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These timeless Tiffany & Co. art-deco-style fan pendants feature enameling, platinum-set diamonds and pearl drops. Golden South Sea pearls and Tahitian pearls can be found in oval, teardrop, round and baroque shapes. Tahitian pearls are the only natural black pearls in the world. Cultured golden pearl (left): $16,000, Tahitian pearl: $17,000.

white freshwater cultured pearls dangle from handmade 14 karat gold ear wires

Credit: Courtesy of Gumps, San Francisco

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Crafted as part of Gumps' Signature Collection, this pair of perfect pearl drop earrings reflects classic tradition and modern design aesthetics. White freshwater cultured pearls dangle from handmade 14-karat gold wires. $500.

Ten strands of white freshwater cultured pearls twist into a necklace

Credit: Courtesy of Gumps, San Francisco

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Ten strands of white freshwater cultured pearls twist into a necklace of rare beauty, culminating in a centerpiece of solid jade, considered lucky. The 18-inch strands are hand-knotted on fine silk thread and fasten with a 14-karat gold clasp. $2,000.

freshwater cultured coin pearls and diamonds shine in a crafted brooch

Credit: Courtesy of Gumps, San Francisco

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Lustrous freshwater cultured coin pearls (and diamonds) shine in this superbly crafted 1½-inch brooch. Set in 14-karat yellow gold, the flower of pearls can also be worn as a pendant. $3,250.

japanese akoya stud earrings with diamond

Credit: Courtesy of Ikeda Pearl

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High-quality Akoya cultured white pearls with pink overtones, primarily found in Japan's Ago Bay, are the stars of this lavish pair of earrings, set in 14-karat gold and featuring matching diamonds. $719.99.

5 strands of hand-knotted, high luster 3.5-5.0 millimeter Japanese Keshi pearls

Credit: Courtesy of Ikeda Pearl

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Five strands of hand-knotted, high-luster Japanese Keshi natural pearls form this lovely twistable bracelet. A 14-karat-gold bow clasp completes the graceful circle. $769.99.

white south sea pendant on gold chain

Credit: Courtesy of Jessica's Gems Maui

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All great art does not hang in museums. This large, luminous South Sea cultured pearl, set with a 62-karat oval diamond, graces a 14-karat yellow-gold mesh chain filled with faceted crystals. Pendant: $6,800, chain: $695.

Mabe Pearl Ring with Diamond

Credit: Courtesy of Ikeda Pearl

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This sophisticated design features an unblemished, high-luster, natural Japanese mabe white pearl with pink overtones and set in white gold. The diamond at the point of the teardrop adds even more sparkle. (Mabe pearls grow against the oyster, have flat backs and a unique dome shape.) $999.

14 karat gold and 14 karat white gold accent south sea strand pearls

Credit: Courtesy of Jessica's Gems Maui

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Accenting this strand of 47 lustrous cultured South Seas pearls are 14-karat gold and 14-karat white gold. $3,900.

varied hues of gold, cream and white oval-shaped pearls

Credit: Courtesy of Jessica's Gems Maui

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Gold, cream and white oval-shaped pearls comprise this breathtaking 41-pearl strand. Cultured within the golden-lipped oyster, the gold-toned South Seas pearls are especially rare. $2,600.

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The lustrous product of oysters and mussels, pearls have captivated our imagination for millennia. According to Roman historian Pliny, the Queen of the Nile bet her lover Mark Antony that she could serve a meal more expensive than any that he had lavished on her. Removing one of her priceless pearl earrings, she dissolved it in a vessel of vinegar and drank the liquid. With that, Cleopatra won the wager — and Antony’s heart forever.

The stuff of legend, perhaps, but it’s still a hot topic among historians, scientists and pearl lovers today.

Royalty’s obsession with pearls has figured into politics, pirating, religion — even the financing of wars. The Roman general Vitellius financed an entire campaign from one of his mother’s earrings.

These coveted gems have graced some of history’s most iconic trendsetters. Queen Elizabeth I drenched herself in them; Coco Chanel made the pearl rope de rigueur; Grace Kelly and Jackie Kennedy turned elegant strands into les objets de désir; and Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s immortalized multistrand pearl necklaces.

On Valentine’s Day 1969, Richard Burton bestowed upon his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, “La Peregrina” (“the wanderer”) one of the world’s largest pearls. Found by an African slave in the mid-16th century in the Gulf of Panama, it had belonged to European royalty for some 500 years before making its way to a Hollywood queen.

How to Choose a Pearl 

“Look for the luster. That’s the No. 1 thing: how shiny it is,” says Jessica, a sales consultant at Ikeda Pearl in Los Angeles. Adding to a pearl’s value is the thickness of its “nacre,” or skin. Multiple layers of nacre give it iridescence. “A higher-quality pearl is thicker and reflects more shine,” Jessica says.

Saltwater pearls (from the South Seas) are more expensive than freshwater ones because they’re more precious: An ocean oyster can produce only one pearl in its lifetime (and almost by chance, as a natural healing process). Pearl farmers, on the other hand, will “culture” that pearl by grafting pieces of other mollusks into it, then return it to the ocean, where it will continue to “artificially” create more gems. “In its lifetime, one freshwater mollusk can yield 10 to 20 pearls,” Jessica explains. Learn more here about the history, magic and science of these enchanting pearls.

Real pearls still have the power to illuminate our imaginations and to inspire some of the world’s top jewelry designers.

The perfect accessory for any time, any outfit, pearls now come in an array of colors, ranging from Champagne gold to deepest iridescent midnight black (depending on the mollusk’s species, pigments and habitat). And they’re not just for the classic rope, or teardrop earring, which will never go out of style. Today, pearls are used creatively in bracelets, brooches, pendants and all manner of earrings.

Even if you don’t have the budget for the real thing (as seen in our slideshow), there’s no reason you can’t enjoy some high-end window shopping.

Ellen Seiden is a freelance writer who specializes in style and history. Born in June, she has a natural attraction to her birthstone, the pearl.

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