Wealth, Power, and the Pearl Necklace

January 11, 2022 / Ellie Stephan

Pearls started out as the adornment of the ruling class. Now, they’re subverting the status quo.

Sultry candlelight reflects off of Cleopatra’s pearl earring. It’s not just any pearl; it’s the largest in history, worth the modern equivalent of a billion dollars. Raising an eyebrow at Marc Antony, she takes it off and drops it in a golden goblet of wine. The pale gleam of the pearl dims until it eventually dissolves in the swirling maroon. Lifting the goblet to her lips, Cleopatra swallows the dissolved pearl in victory. She won the bet.

According to legend, Cleopatra bet Marc Antony she could host the most extravagant banquet in history. There was one surefire way to impress the ancient Roman leader: pearls. The Roman Empire was obsessed with pearls. In the first century BC, Julius Caesar, Marc Antony’s predecessor, passed a law that pearls were only to be worn by the ruling class. Pearls’ rarity made them treasured among royalty. Before the advent of mass production, one would have to dive deep into the Persian Gulf, hoping for the 1 in 200 million chance that a natural pearl would be perfectly round. Roman aristocracy flaunted pearls as a reminder of their wealth and prestige; Roman Emperor Caligula even adorned his horse in pearls. As the world’s oldest gemstone, pearls began their journey in the fashion world as a status symbol.

Pop culture icons in the 20th century carried on this legacy of prestige in the form of a pearl necklace. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Audrey Hepburn plays a showy socialite who wears a pearl necklace to appear wealthy and upper-class. Paired with a little black dress and sunglasses, this look became iconic in Americana. If you wanted to appear affluent, beautiful, and sophisticated, you wore a pearl necklace.

Revolutionary fashion designer Coco Chanel enabled women to replicate this look. A pearl-necklace lover herself, she once declared, “Go and fetch my pearls.  I will not go up to the atelier until I have my pearls.” Ropes of pearls perfectly juxtaposed her minimalist, simple style. But much to the astonishment of the wealthy fashion community at the time, not all the pearls were real. Coco Chanel’s faux pearl necklaces helped dispel the notion of costume jewelry being tacky. In doing so, she made pearls more accessible to women of all social classes. The lower price point didn’t take away from pearl necklaces’ status, though. Stars like Coco Chanel and Audrey Hepburn, women at the height of beauty standards and wealth, characterized pearl necklaces as luxurious femininity.

Pearls went on to be indicative of not just wealth or beauty, but also feminine political power. When the stylish Jacqueline Kennedy entered the White House, women across the nation looked to her as a fashion role model. Regardless of the occasion, a triple-stranded pearl necklace often graced her outfit. Kennedy put it simply: “Pearls are always appropriate.”

Unlike flashy diamonds, pearls convey luxurious refinement without making female politicians seem out of touch with low-income voters. Furthermore, in a culture that associates femininity with demurity, pearls soften the power suits of outspoken stateswomen. Sarah Pallonem, a Washington, D.C., jeweler to the political elite, claims that “pearls are the power suit and tie for women.” From Martha Washington to Kamala Harris, women in the political spotlight have adopted pearl-necklace political armor to convey the reserved elegance perfect for campaigns. All of pearl necklaces’ history — the royalty, wealth, beauty standards, and political power — culminate in one conclusion: Pearl necklaces are a symbol of the feminine establishment.

As the generation that grew up with role models like Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy aged, so did the reputation of pearl necklaces. In the 1990s, the expression of “pearl-clutching” came into the vernacular, signifying a prude having a shocked reaction to something morally wrong. Pearl necklaces became dated, old-lady jewelry. But in his 2013 Fall/Winter show, Alber Elbaz changed that. As head of the French house Lanvin, he flipped the idea of the pearl necklace. Twisting its history of tasteful luxury, he evoked cheap gaudiness by draping faux pearls with chains, bright colors, crystals, and ribbon. Unlike the quiet elegance of traditional pearl necklaces, Elbaz’s necklaces brashly spelled out “HOT” or “COOL” in shiny gold letters. This collection launched the phrase: “Not your mother’s pearls.” In his collection, pearls became cutting edge and unconventional. Designers jumped to follow suit, incorporating pearls into countless iconic collections.

In 2016, Chanel sent Pharrell Williams down the runway wearing a pearl necklace. Williams’ appearance opened the door to men in the hip hop industry claiming the pearl necklace as their own. Similar to Cleopatra drinking her dissolved earring to brag to Marc Antony, rappers often wear extravagant gold chains and drive luxury cars to show off their wealth. As an alternative to a classic chain, a pearl necklace evokes flex culture in a refreshing way. By wearing pearls, jewelry that’s so traditionally feminine, men show that they’re comfortable enough in their masculinity to play with the lines of gender in fashion.

This trend didn’t truly take off until 2019, when rapper A$AP Rocky arrived at the Christian Dior show wearing a sheer, flowery top adorned with ropes of pearls. The accessory caught fire in the world of rap. It was frequently worn by artists such as Machine Gun Kelly, Gucci Mane, and Future. These men flaunted their manliness by maintaining machismo while donning the uniform of Barbara Bush. By being popular in a music genre entrenched in heteronormativity and gritty masculinity, the image of a dainty First Lady wearing pearls was shattered. Pearls were now tough.

For another facet of male celebrities, however, pearl necklaces aren’t just a way to boast about wealth or express comfort in their masculinity; rather, they are an outlet to experiment with androgynous fashion. In the same year A$AP Rocky sported pearls, Harry Styles arrived at the Met Gala wearing a singular pearl earring. Soon after, pearl necklaces became a staple in his wardrobe as a part of his wider brand of playing with gender fluidity in fashion. In 2019, he claimed “what men are wearing and what women are wearing  —  it's like there are no lines anymore,” citing inspirations like Prince and David Bowie. Especially in the queer community, pearl necklaces have become a go-to medium for men to play with the gendered conventions of fashion. Gay men like Troye Sivan and Billy Porter have characterized pearls as a staple for men who reject gender binary in fashion. Rather than pearls flaunting hypermasculinity, pearl necklaces have become a tool to play with gender norms.

The trend of men wearing pearl necklaces has exploded with Gen Z especially. But why now? Male millennials and Gen Zers certainly aren’t the first to blur gender boundaries in their wardrobe. Icons like Prince and David Bowie pioneered androgonous looks way before Harry Styles ever stepped on to the cover of Vogue in a dress. Elton John even wore ropes of pearls back in the ‘80s. So why is Gen Z the first generation of men to replicate this look? Why is the pearl necklace a staple for Gen Z, specifically? Before the Stonewall Riots of 1969, cross-dressing arrests were commonplace. While public perception of gender fluidity rapidly changed in the 1970s with the popularity of stars like David Bowie, androgyny still wasn’t widely embraced. But now, Gen Z men live in the most accepting time period of gender fluidity yet. Gen Z men have the freedom to emulate the flamboyant male celebrities they see on the red carpet in a way that was previously unheard of.

Men wearing pearl necklaces has become an indicator of machismo, experimentation, and disobedience to gender norms. Pearls are for everyone. Rather than symbolizing the establishment, pearl necklaces have become a symbol of modern, nonconformist masculinity. Pearls started out as the adornment of the ruling class. Now, they’re subverting the status quo. ■

by: Ellie Stephan

layout: Emma Weeden
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