Pearls have mesmerised us with their beauty and allure since antiquity. Over thousands of years they have been associated with wealth, royalty, power and glamour - and, right now, in the world of fashion, they are having their moment.
Long cascading strings of pearls and multistrand bracelets worn by Carey Mulligan in The Great Gatsby kicked off a revival this summer.
Tiffany & Co., which collaborated with costume designer Catherine Martin, created the jewellery for the film, and some of those pieces are now part of Tiffany's Beyond the Blue collection and its more accessible sister range, the Ziegfeld collection.
If you think pearls only appeal to older customers, think again. Rihanna was draped from neck to waist in ropes of pearls from Chanel's costume jewellery collection when she attended the brand's haute couture show in July, suggesting that pearls have a far funkier image these days.
Designers are shedding that "old lady" image of pearls by making them look edgier. Pearls are paired with contrasting materials, such as onyx in black gold settings, for a more dynamic look. Chanel, for instance, has created a yin and yang effect with their pearl and onyx beaded bracelets and tassel earrings in their Contraste de Camelia fine jewellery collection.
Shaun Leane, who made his name with the darkly menacing tribal jewellery that appeared in early Alexander McQueen shows, uses pale luminous pearl orbs to contrast with the spiky black diamond claws in his Tribal Deco collection, creating an edgy look that appeals to younger clients. These come with fine jewellery price tags.
More accessible is his Cherry Blossom collection, which uses thorny branches of gold vermeil to contrast with the sweet enamel blossoms and pearl buds. The collection has proved to be particularly popular with his young Asian customers at Selfridges and Lane Crawford.
Hong Kong jewellery designer Dickson Yewn says wearing multistrand pearl bracelets is far more chic and trendy than the traditional strand of pearls around the neck with a ring. There are some desirable iridescent freshwater pearl bracelets with exquisite precious stone detail in his collections.
Yewn believes the young crowd should avoid the big, voluptuous South Sea pearls, even though they are among the finest.
Natural, saltwater pearls are so rare and their prices so stratospheric that they are regarded as the ultimate trophy in high jewellery. A simple double strand of 150 matching saltwater pearls sold recently at auction in Hong Kong for HK$18.9 million.
What is more readily available today are cultured pearls, which include Tahitian and South Sea pearls farmed in saltwater around Burma, Thailand, Australia and the Philippines, and freshwater pearls from mussels that are harvested in rivers and lakes in places such as India, the Persian Gulf and China.
Pearls can be formed in any mollusc with a shell, not only oysters. Ninety per cent of pearls nowadays come from mussels. China has been farming pearl mussels in hatcheries since the 1960s, and offers the best because most of its pearls are cultured without a bead (around which the pearl is formed) being inserted.
There are plenty of enchanting myths and superstitious beliefs associated with pearls. Pearls can symbolise purity, good luck in marriage, which is why pearls are so popular with brides, or even tears. In India, many people believe that pearls are drops of dew which have fallen into oysters. According to classical Greek and Roman mythology, pearls were formed from the teardrops of the gods. Whether of divine origin or not, pearls have captured us with their elegance and charm.
Left: Shaun Leane's Tribal Deco necklace is a certain head-turner. The designer made his name giving pearls an edgy look.
Centre: Earrings from Chanel's Contraste de Camelia collection are elegant and sophisticated.
Right: A bracelet from Hong Kong jewellery designer Dickson Yewn's Floral Lattice Collection.
This autumn, London’s Victoria & Albert Museum (pictured) will be staging a major exhibition that introduces the natural history of pearls. Simply titled “Pearls”, the exhibition will dispel myths along the way (such as how a natural pearl is created from minuscule sea creatures and not from a grain of sand), and lead visitors through the history of pearl jewellery, the ancient sources in the Persian Gulf and southern tip of India and Sri Lanka, into modern-day jewellery from the finest artistic jewellers.
One of the earliest trade routes for pearls was across the Indian Ocean to China, where the natural pearls from the Gulf were highly prized.
Arab merchants visited the courts of the Chinese emperors where only the imperial family members were permitted to wear pearls.
Pictorial evidence of pearls being worn and sewn onto imperial robes began as early as the 11th century, at which time an envoy from India was reported to have visited the court of Emperor Shen Kuo (1031-1095) to present a tribute in pearls.
A Qing dynasty imperial robe embroidered with pearls will be featured in the exhibition, as well as a rare manuscript commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor in the late 18th century. It illustrates two necklaces with the caption “Drawing of a court necklace worn by the Emperor” – most likely made of pearls.
“Pearls” will run from September 21 to January 19.