Ever since I was a little girl playing princess dress-up games, I remember loving pearls. Something about those luminescent gems from the sea captures the imagination in a different way than the harsher glitter of cut gemstones. Among natural gems such as coral and amber, pearls are unique in that they complement every skin tone, hair color, and eye color while being a renewable and increasingly affordable resource.
Pearls have not always been accessible to the average woman. Throughout history, pearls have signified wealth, royalty, and power in many different cultures. They have even changed the course of history, such as when Cleopatra dissolved one of the largest pearls in the world in vinegar and drank it just to show off for Marc Antony (true story!). My favorite moment in pearl history is when First Lady Dolley Madison showed up to America’s first Inaugural Ball in 1809 dressed in a regal costume of velvet, but instead of the expected royal jewels, her crown was a turban with feathers and her necklace was a simple string of pearls. This style choice established Dolley’s persona as both a shrewd American woman who could handle the challenges of the White House and an elegant socialite worthy of the Washington elite.
Apart from their fascinating history, pearls possess a legendary versatility when it comes to complementing your wardrobe. Whether a bracelet, a brooch, a set of earrings, or a necklace, pearl jewelry can enhance literally any outfit. Let’s look at some of the many options for wearing pearls.
01. Minimalist and sleek
Pearls are the perfect gem for the minimalists among us. White (or black) spherical pearls are available in pendants, simple necklace strands, or stud earrings, and one piece can easily serve as your whole jewelry collection, lending a gentle touch of polish to your office look, date night dress, or adventurous travel outfit. Try pairing them with blocked-color outfits to allow the natural sheen on the pearl to pick up the colors of your clothes. Conversely, keep your clothes neutral and let the pearls serve as a quiet statement piece to frame your face.
02. Pretty and practical
Pearls are the working woman’s best friend. Whether you wear scrubs, a blazer, a hard hat, or a baby sling, the easy-going yet elegant nature of pearl jewelry will keep you looking put-together even on those crazy days when everything is going haywire. Grab a close-fitting pearl bracelet to wear for a little glam where you can see and enjoy it throughout the day. Rock some freshwater pearls with a sweater and leggings to elevate your casual wear to an understated preppy look. Find some teardrop-shaped earrings to frame your face when you don’t have time for makeup. A one, two, or three-strand pearl necklace is always appropriate for most workplaces—just keep the length short, less than 18 inches, for a more practical look you can wear everyday.
03. Edgy and fun
White is nice, but did you know pearls come in every color of the rainbow and a multitude of shapes? Pink, peacock, and golden pearls are especially valued for their unique shades, and let’s not forget the rainbow iridescence of mother-of-pearl (which occurs naturally when pearly nacre is deposited on the inside of mollusk shells). Beyond the traditional round shape, pearls come in tear-drops, oval, button, and baroque, or other, irregular shapes. If white pearls feel a little too Victorian for you, try pairing a colored or black set of pearls with a leather jacket, black clothes, and boots for an elevated take on an edgy look. Layer multiple strands of different-sized and -colored pearls for a dramatic confidence boost. Mix black, blue, or brown pearls and steel or copper metal jewelry for a gorgeous industrial vibe. My personal favorite: pair a simple piece of white pearl jewelry with dramatic makeup for some added contrast around your face.
04. Opulent and refined
Now we come to one of my favorite uses for pearls—total glam. Pair a choker or long single or triple strand (odd numbers of strands look best) with a little black dress and red lip for timeless class. Wear a full set of pearls—necklace, bracelet, earrings—with a full-length gown or cocktail dress for a refined look fit for the opera or a fancy restaurant (or a Netflix marathon, it’s up to you). Place pearl pins in your hair for a gorgeous wedding look. Wear gloves with pearl buttons. Layer multiple strands over a black turtleneck and neutral slacks for an elegant mid-century vibe.
Now, the budget-conscious reader may ask, “How am I supposed to afford all this fabulous pearl jewelry?” In fact, you don’t have to. A good string of false pearls will look almost as good as the real thing, at a fraction of the cost. I have real pearl earrings, but my favorite (and honestly best-looking) pair of pearl earrings is actually fake, bought for me by my grandma when I was 14. Yes, real pearls are classy, but so is financial responsibility. So go ahead and grab some false pearl jewelry now, maybe from Etsy or a local artist, and save up for the real thing later.
If you're ready to invest in real pearls, I’d recommend three avenues for purchasing them:
Go to the source.
One of my pearl strands was found for me by my father during a long flight layover in Fiji many years ago. He went for a walk and happened to come across a family selling pearl jewelry that they had harvested locally. When travelling, you’ll need to keep a sharp eye out for “tourist trap” souvenir-type jewelry, but with a little help from locals around the world, you’d be surprised at the loveliness (and comparative affordability) of locally-harvested pearls.
Go to a small, local jeweler.
My other strand of pearls was a graduation gift from my mother, who found them among an estate lot up for auction through my hometown jeweler, who we’ve dealt with for decades. Independent jewelers can often help you find exactly what you’re looking for within your price point and can even help you create custom jewelry or repair and restring old pieces.
Try an antique store.
Speaking of old pieces, some antique stores will occasionally have genuine vintage pearl jewelry. With a little legwork and help from the store owners, you might be lucky enough to find some vintage glam at an affordable price! (Don’t forget to ask about layaway plans.) If you love pearls but the style of the piece isn’t for you, don’t be afraid to have them restrung or reset into something you’ll actually wear every day.
Besides their enormous versatility, pearls are robust gems that will age gracefully and can easily become heirloom pieces to pass on to the next generation. The next time you’re looking for a piece of jewelry for any and every occasion, consider the pearl.