Not Your Grandma's Pearls: How To Style This Classic Accessory With A Modern Twist

When many people think of pearls, they think of plain strands worn by old ladies, but these one-of-a-kind gemstones can be styled in a chic and modern way.

By Hana Tilksew3 min read
Pexels/cottonbro studio

What’s not to love about pearls? They’re versatile, they’re elegant, and they’re timeless. As a renowned fail-safe in the jewelry world, they’re appropriate for weddings, funerals, and all the mundane life events in between. Pearls have symbolized many things to many cultures, from the ancient Chinese belief that they protected a wearer from evil to a Victorian association with tears of mourning. Famous fans of this gemstone range from Cleopatra to Kate Middleton, the Princess of Wales.

Throughout history, pearls have been so desirable that kings and emperors have passed laws dictating who was allowed to wear them. Thankfully, in today’s day and age, everyone has the right to adorn themselves with as many pearls as their heart desires. Don’t let this right go to waste by thinking pearls belong to a bygone era – they’ll be relevant forever.

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What Are Pearls, and Why Are They So Famous?

Most gemstones, like diamonds and rubies, are inorganic and mined from the earth. Pearls, on the other hand, are the only gem produced by a living organism. They’re formed when an irritant enters the shell of a mollusk, and it combats the irritant by forming layers of nacre (the material that creates pearls) around it. An uncultured or natural pearl occurs when a pearl forms in the wild without any human intervention. A cultured or manmade pearl occurs when the irritant that creates the pearl is purposely inserted into the mollusk with the goal of eventually harvesting it for jewelry.

Until the late 19th century, pearls were typically only accessible to elites who could afford to pay exorbitant amounts for these precious gems. This changed in 1893, when Japanese native Kokichi Mikimoto studied how pearls were formed and succeeded in creating cultured pearls, laying the foundation for global pearl demand. In the decades that followed, pearls became a staple in the daily rotation of both Old Hollywood starlets and genteel housewives.

The way that pearls have been worn by women through the ages is a clear indicator of the era they belonged to. During the Renaissance, pearl jewelry was fashioned into lavish, artistic designs and paired with gold and other gemstones. In the 1920s, unfussy rope necklaces were more popular, displaying the decade’s preference for simplicity. In the 1950s, matching sets of pearl earrings and necklaces became all the rage.

Perhaps as a result of how accessible pearls are today, we’ve begun to take them for granted and see them as yesterday’s news. But are we neglecting an accessory that could elevate our looks like no other? Maybe we should glean some wisdom from Jackie Kennedy, who once said that “Pearls are always appropriate.”

How To Style Pearls

Pearls are often associated with a “prim-and-proper” look, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be adapted to different personal styles and aesthetics. If you consider yourself more of a flamboyant fashionista who likes to make unexpected statements with your looks, then Rihanna will be your ultimate inspiration. Never one to blend in with the crowd, Rihanna has come up with some pretty inventive ways to wear her pearls – including pearl-rimmed sunglasses.

If pearls on their own are a little simple for your taste, you can always mix and match them with more eclectic jewelry pieces. Eternal trendsetter Princess Diana loved to customize her seemingly plain jewelry and turn it into something more unique, mounting a seven-strand pearl choker with a sapphire brooch and making it one of the most recognizable necklaces in the world.

If the more classic style of pearls does appeal to you, draw some inspiration from Angelina Jolie. Even in traditional pearl studs and string necklaces, Jolie manages to look fashion-forward by keeping her makeup very modern (most of us can only dream of winged eyeliner so precise) and having her hair either slicked back or delicately tousled to show off the jewelry without being too in-your-face. A classic pearl necklace with matching earrings is bound to look old-fashioned when worn with a tweed suit and roller curls. However, when worn with a sleek, modern ensemble, your pearls will add a touch of sophistication that comes across as ladylike instead of matronly.

Though pearls are usually worn in the form of jewelry, pearl clothes are becoming more and more common. While it may be difficult to dress down pearl-studded clothing in a casual setting, pulling out a bejeweled top the next time you have a dressy event to attend can instantly make you the belle of the ball. TikTok influencers Martha Lay (@marthayunalay) and Sanjana Gutha (@sanjureddyyyy) are shining examples of how to put together a formal outfit that’s elevated by pearl-embellished clothing.

If you thought jewelry and clothes were all pearls could do, think again: They can also elevate purses. Another TikToker, Stephanie Barreca (@stephbarreca), offers a masterclass in styling a pearl handbag with different fun, feminine outfits.

Where To Get Your Pearl Fix

There are just as many places to purchase pearls as there are ways to style them. If you’re looking to save, there are plenty of affordable options under $100 on the market. You can go for something like this Reeds ring featuring a freshwater cultured pearl in a setting of white sapphires ($70). If you prefer Renaissance-style jewelry, try these stud earrings from The Met collection that are sure to bring out your regal side ($95). If you prefer your pearls wrapped around the neck like Princess Diana did, try this Anne Klein pearl collar ($60).

If you’re looking to splurge, you can go for Jennifer Behr’s famous pearlescent hair accessories. Their endlessly versatile 7-Piece Perla Bobby Pins ($225) are the perfect final touch to a glamorous hairdo, while their Bria Headband ($278) can top off any look with a gorgeous tiara effect. For an accessory you can pair with any outfit and wear from day to night, check out Lele Sadoughi’s pearl-studded Paloma bag ($225).

Closing Thoughts

Pearls may have been around for a long time, but they’re a classic for a reason. After all, women across the world wouldn’t have stayed devoted to an accessory since ancient times if it were no good. No matter your personal aesthetic or price range, this is your sign to take back the power of pearls and make your next outfit one to be remembered.

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