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Pearls for the New Year and forever

By Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, The Philippine STAR Published Jan 03, 2024 7:55 am

Pearls have always been prized heirloom pieces passed on from mothers to daughters in the Philippines, which has been famous for the gem since ancient times when Chinese merchants coveted them on the ancient trade route called the Pearl Road.

The Visayan word for pearl, mutiara, was one of the words significant enough for Pigafetta to record when Magellan’s expedition landed in the country in 1521. It has been such a source of pride that Jose Rizal, in his last poem Mi Ultimo Adios, crowned our beloved country Perla del Mar de Oriente and we call our land Perlas ng Silanganan when we sing our national anthem. It was even designated the National Gem by President Fidel Ramos in 1996 and graces the 1,000-peso bill.

Louis Vuitton SS 2024

Pearls have been so much part of our culture that this season’s trend for power pearls, which carried over to spring-summer 2024, is welcome news, indeed. Not that they ever went out or would ever go out of fashion. It’s just that the zeitgeist of wearability and sustainability has given this gem the spotlight now. Its understated luster easily dresses up an outfit from morning to evening and will always add an air of festivity and celebration without going overboard. Well, you can still choose to go over-the-top, of course, by piling it on and following Coco Chanel’s dictum of “A woman needs ropes and ropes of pearls.”

Charles I wearing a pearl earring

And men do, too. Harry Styles made it cool and Pharrell Williams layered them on necks and encrusted eyewear with them for Louis Vuitton SS 2024. Historically, pearls were prized by men in multiple cultures, from European monarchs to Chinese emperors and Indian maharajas. Polynesian warriors, ferocious as they were, wore pearls as a sign of power and as amulets. Knights during the Dark Ages invoked their protection on the battlefield. One of the most infamous pearls worn by men is the baroque pearl earring that Charles I wore when he was beheaded—what a glorious way to go!

Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala (1911) and one of his Cartier pearl necklaces

The world’s oldest pearl, the Abu Dhabi Pearl, dates back 8,000 years to the Neolithic period, which indicates pearl trading since Neolithic times, but evidence of pearls first worn as adornment are the Susa Pearls from a 426 BC sarcophagus of a Persian princess, on display at the Louvre.

The pearl tiara of Empress Eugénie (1853), featuring 212 natural pearls, at the Louvre

Pearl jewelry was also a status symbol in ancient Rome, where Julius Caesar passed a law prohibiting non-royals from wearing them. They were so valuable that the general Vitellius was able to finance an entire military campaign by just selling one of his mother’s earrings. At the height of the pearl craze, women from the nobility upholstered couches with pearls and sewed them into their gowns. Caligula decorated his horse with them when he made the animal a consul. To convince Rome that Egypt had a heritage and wealth that placed it above conquest, Cleopatra supposedly gave Marc Anthony the most expensive dinner in history, capped by her drinking a goblet of wine after crushing a large pearl in it.

Sportmax SS 2024

With the discovery of pearls in Central and South America in the 15th and 16th centuries and an increased demand in Europe, the Pearl Age came about, a time when stylish women among the elite and the royals would wear them—led by the likes of Elizabeth I and Maria de Medici, who were draped in the gem.

Elizabeth Taylor wearing the La Peregrina Pearl in a necklace by Cartier

In modern times, another Elizabeth, this time from Hollywood royalty, owned a legendary pearl—La Peregrina—one of the largest and most perfectly symmetrical pear-shaped pieces in the world, with a 500-year history from its discovery by an African slave in Panama and being owned by Spanish monarchs to Richard Burton giving it as a gift to his wife Elizabeth Taylor, who thought she had lost it one day only to find it in the mouth of one of her puppies—fortunately intact without a scratch.

Unlike gemstones that are mined from the earth, a living organism produces a pearl that is formed when an irritant, such as a parasite or a piece of shell, is accidentally lodged in an oyster’s inner body, causing it to secrete nacre, which builds around the irritant in layers until a pearl is formed. Cultured pearls undergo the same process except that the irritant is purposely implanted instead of by chance.

Hailey Bieber in Tiffany & Co.

Until the start of the 20th century, collecting pearls was dangerous. Divers risked their lives with a chance of limited success, since a ton of oysters would yield only three or four quality pearls. Natural pearls were rare and expensive, earning them the title “The Queen of Gems and the Gem of Queens,” as pronounced by Grace Kelly, who became princess of Monaco.

Philippine colonial pearl earrings

Today, natural pearls are among the rarest of gems, sometimes found only in the seas of Bahrain and Australia. Almost all pearl jewelry on the market consists of cultured pearls, the first of which was created in 1893 by Kokichi Mikimoto, the son of a Japanese noodle maker, who discovered the process that made pearls more affordable.

Philippine South Sea Pearl earrings by Arao x Joanique at AC+632

Mikimoto’s Akoya pearls, ranging from white to cream and pink, are still used today by the jewelry house that bears his name. Other saltwater pearls include Tahitian pearls from Tahiti and other French Polynesian islands, which come in gray, blue, green and purple; and South Sea pearls, the largest of all pearl varieties that come from the Philippines, Australia and Indonesia, in white and golden hues.

Solenn Heussaff wearing Philippine South Sea Pearls and jewelry from Jewelmer

South Sea pearls, with their rich luster and iridescence, are quite rare and valuable because the Pinctada maxima oysters that host them are sensitive and require a longer time (around four to five years) for cultivation—almost double the time compared to akoya pearls. In the Philippines, Jewelmer, established in 1979 by a French pearl farmer and a Filipino entrepreneur, has made these exceptional pearls the centerpieces of its brand, which has grown globally. 

Kimhekim SS 2024

Arao has also made the golden South Sea Pearl the star of its timeless, accessible and versatile pieces, taking their cue from its name, which alludes to the energy and golden hues of the sun, which is araw in Pilipino and to araw-araw, meaning “every day,” which is always a good day to wear pearls. With this beautiful gem that is so much a part of our heritage, making it a daily habit to wear them should be a pleasure and source of pride.