Pearl jewellery’s new cool

A new design-led approach is bringing a playful spirit of individual, contemporary cool to pearl jewellery. Vivienne Becker reports

Mizuki white gold, diamond and pearl ring from the Privé collection, $26,500
Mizuki white gold, diamond and pearl ring from the Privé collection, $26,500

It’s the season’s most thrilling remake of an all-time classic: the pure, pristine pearl is in the midst of a modernising makeover, rebelling against its prim image and taking its place at the heart of some of the coolest jewellery on offer this Christmas.

Chanel gold, diamond and pearl multistrand L’Esprit du Lion necklace, price on request
Chanel gold, diamond and pearl multistrand L’Esprit du Lion necklace, price on request

In the past year, pearls have not only been popping up all over the catwalks as accessories and embellishments, they’ve also been making their own individualist style statements in jewellery across the board. From the young avant-gardists, such as Delfina Delettrez and Sophie Bille Brahe, to heritage brands – notably Chaumet – jewellers are taking up the challenge of the pearl’s seemingly unassailable classicism. In this era of female empowerment, the age-old symbol of femininity is officially ditching the dowager associations and swapping purity and discretion for power and direction. 

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Greek-French designer Melanie Georgacopoulos launched her jewellery collection, focused entirely on pearls, in 2010. While studying at the Royal College of Art, she saw that pearls represented unexplored territory and quickly realised that by breaking through established codes and concepts she could make this seductive subject her own. And she has succeeded, both with her eponymous creations and her M/G collection for the Japanese jeweller and pearl specialist Tasaki. 

Clockwise from top left: Nigel O’Reilly gold, pearl and tsavorite ring, €12,000. Chaumet white gold, diamond and pearl Joséphine Aigrette ring, £3,900. Moussaieff white gold, diamond and pearl bangle, price on request
Clockwise from top left: Nigel O’Reilly gold, pearl and tsavorite ring, €12,000. Chaumet white gold, diamond and pearl Joséphine Aigrette ring, £3,900. Moussaieff white gold, diamond and pearl bangle, price on request

Georgacopoulos made her name by daring to slice freshwater pearls in half and using the half-spherical form to create modernist designs, sometimes cupping them in gold as in her Duet collection, which combines rose and white gold with lavender pearls on necklaces (£1,000), bracelets (£850), bangles (£1,700), rings (£1,400) and earrings (£1,300). In Cages, she encloses whole single pearls in diamond-shaped cages, and in her Flow collection (pieces from £1,000) she sets them within fluid outlines, as if suspended in negative space. Her new Merge collection for M/G Tasaki explores a sense of clustered abundance: in the Woven ring (£3,930) and necklace (£22,500) white freshwater pearls encircled in gold ropework are arranged as if woven together to create a random, rolling movement, while the Grain necklace (£5,150) which sets pearls, with gold spheres, like grains, as if growing between golden sunrays.. “Pearl jewellery has to feel fresh,” says Georgacopoulos. “There’s more demand from younger clients, who are pushing jewellery houses to come up with new designs. The pearl’s simplicity appeals to them – plus it’s organic and feels more connected to nature.” 

Assael white-gold, platinum, pearl and aquamarine earrings, $23,000
Assael white-gold, platinum, pearl and aquamarine earrings, $23,000

Tasaki itself, now under the creative direction of fashion designer Prabal Gurung and opening its first London boutique on New Bond Street this month, brings a provocatively youthful edge to pearls, completely overturning preconceptions. Gurung’s first creations for the newly created, more art-led Tasaki Atelier range (from £13,000) are inspired by surrealism: graphic and linear yet organic and fluid, and including huge open “collars” with their dynamic lines traced in pearls. 

Tasaki Atelier white gold, yellow gold, diamond and pearl bracelets, rings and necklace, from £13,000
Tasaki Atelier white gold, yellow gold, diamond and pearl bracelets, rings and necklace, from £13,000

Counterintuitively, perhaps, the classic white pearl has become an essential component of Delfina Delettrez’s surrealism- or pop art-inspired visual vocabulary, because she likes its modernity and perfection of shape. In her new Zip Code collection she gives the pearl a functional role: it slides along the linear shaft of the Bubble drop earring (£790), which is shaped like a child’s bubble-blowing wand. The open loop on both this pendant earring and the double bubble ear-cuff (£790) is lined with tiny pearls and/or diamonds, while a single pearl becomes the fastener on the minimal, single round gold bubble earclip (£790).  

M/G at Tasaki gold and pearl Grain necklace from the Merge collection, £5,150
M/G at Tasaki gold and pearl Grain necklace from the Merge collection, £5,150

The essential purity of the pearl suits the minimalist aesthetic of Copenhagen-based Sophie Bille Brahe, who now overlays her signature style with a more romantic, poetic narrative. “When I am designing with pearls, I aim to strip away all unnecessary elements so the beauty of the pearl speaks for itself,” she says. In her Aphrodite collection she evokes Botticelli’s depictions of the goddess of love, linked to the pearl as she rises from the sea, and the Three Graces, their hair entwined with strands of pearls. Clusters of pearl “grapes” hang from a single, larger pearl in the Botticelli earrings (€1,000), while the Croissant Grace hair clip (€740) recreates Bille Brahe’s original (diamond-lined) Croissant de Lune design in pearls, graduated into a gentle curve on a gold clip. 

Olivia & Pearl gold and pearl earclips, £120
Olivia & Pearl gold and pearl earclips, £120

Simplicity is the keynote of this genre of contemporary pearl jewellery, as encapsulated in New York-based, Japanese-born designer Mizuki’s chic Privé collection, which preserves and highlights their natural organic beauty – particularly that of the baroque pearls she favours. A golden baroque South Sea pearl sits at the centre of a dramatic double-finger, diamond-encrusted ring ($26,500), and a stream of graduated Akoya pearls falls from rose-cut diamonds to form long, linear, tapered drop earrings ($16,800, exclusive to Bergdorf Goodman). 

From left: Marie-Hélène de Taillac gold and pearl ring from the Vestale collection, $18,500. Delfina Delettrez gold, diamond and pearl Bubble earring from the Zip Code collection, £790. Melanie Georgacopoulos gold, diamond and pearl ring from the Cages collection, £5,170
From left: Marie-Hélène de Taillac gold and pearl ring from the Vestale collection, $18,500. Delfina Delettrez gold, diamond and pearl Bubble earring from the Zip Code collection, £790. Melanie Georgacopoulos gold, diamond and pearl ring from the Cages collection, £5,170

In Paris, Marie-Hélène de Taillac was inspired by exceptional white Australian South Sea pearls to create the Vestale collection. She hangs them on powerfully simple gold hoop earrings, allowing the pearls to shine, uncluttered; the hoop itself, with its softness and movement, balances geometry and fluidity – or as the designer herself says, antiquity and modernity. There’s a choice between a large single hoop ($4,990) or a longer drop version ($13,500) of interconnecting hoops. 

Chopard white gold, diamond and pearl necklace, price on request
Chopard white gold, diamond and pearl necklace, price on request

It was not only simplicity but also accessibility that drove Olivia Smith to launch her own brand, Olivia & Pearl, in 2017. A pearl devotee since childhood, she studied them at the Gemological Institute of America, in Hong Kong and in London, and saw that she could source freshwater and Akoya pearls directly from pearl farms in China at attractice prices to make “cool and savvy” pearl jewellery. The range includes open-ended bangles (£195), rings (from £80) with double-pearl terminals, an earclip (£120) with a single stud at the front and a fan of pearls behind, and even a new take on the classic single strand (£350) with larger graduated pearls at the front and smaller ungraduated versions at the back.

Sophie Bille Brahe gold and pearl Botticelli earrings, €1,000
Sophie Bille Brahe gold and pearl Botticelli earrings, €1,000

Revolutionary thinking is not just reaching but rocking the elite end of the pearl jewellery spectrum, where the lust for natural pearls, antique specimens and extreme rarities has been the focus of the market for some time. Now there’s a noticeable shift towards innovative design and finding relaxed, more contemporary ways of wearing even the most precious of pearls. 

Jane Sarginson rose gold, pearl and zircon earrings, £16,500
Jane Sarginson rose gold, pearl and zircon earrings, £16,500

Chanel’s story has been entwined with pearls ever since Coco famously debunked the value and formality of the pearl necklace in the 1920s – so the house knew just how to repitch the pearl for today’s new mood. In this year’s L’Esprit du Lion collection, small, subtle but luscious high-lustre pearls mingle with gold chain – another Chanel signature – on the deep cuff, long drop earrings and multistrand necklace (all price on request), giving it a fresh, almost rock ’n’ roll edge.

Mizuki gold, black diamond and pearl earrings from the Privé collection, $16,800, exclusive to Bergdorf Goodman
Mizuki gold, black diamond and pearl earrings from the Privé collection, $16,800, exclusive to Bergdorf Goodman

Chaumet’s new Joséphine Aigrette collection – inspired by the house’s muse Empress Joséphine, who was passionate about pearls – is an evolution of earlier designs with tiara-shaped elements. It includes earrings (from £3,140) and a bracelet (£3,790) with pearls, but it is the rings that are particularly striking. Their concept is mixing, matching and “stacking” horizontally across the fingers, with various permutations of the stylised aigrette form – and pearls feature prominently, mixing easily with diamonds and any colour of gold or gemstone. The slender V-shaped diamond bands are edged (all or halfway) with graduated rows of small but beautiful Akoya pearls, while the rings (£6,170) with an upstanding central cluster of diamonds are set with a single striking pearl. There’s something undeniably charming about the way the house has reimagined them as something modern, casual and completely on trend.

Assael x J Hunter Pearls white gold, diamond and pearl necklace, $64,000
Assael x J Hunter Pearls white gold, diamond and pearl necklace, $64,000

A mood of playful whimsy combined with a sense of fluid movement is shaping the designs at Mikimoto, the most traditional of pearl brands and inventor of the cultured pearl. The Jeux de Rubans collection (all prices on request) envelops single large South Sea pearls in unfurling diamond-set ribbons, or weaves classic Akoya pearls into a frilly collar necklace tied with a diamond bow. For the past few years, Mikimoto has been pioneering new ways of wearing pearls as extravagant body ornaments, and the brand’s dramatically long 254cm Akoya pearl strand (price on request) seems to have found its moment. It can be worn wrapped several times around the neck or long and knotted, Flapper-style, draped down the back – it’s especially effective with backless party dresses, as a sash around the waist or even trailed over the shoulders and under the arms like a shrug. 

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Caroline Scheufele, creative director of Chopard, has gone long and loose with pearls in one of her latest high-jewellery creations, striking a beautiful balance between casual and opulent: the necklace (price on request), composed of 93 South Sea pearls, incorporates a removable diamond brooch set with pear-shaped and rose-cut diamonds. 

“The classic pearl look is gone, dead,” says Alisa Moussaieff, who for over 50 years has been the creative (and commercial) powerhouse behind this company, founded by early Bukharian pearl traders, with pearls in its DNA. Her clients, she says, now look for something “funky”, something entirely different, especially extra-long sautoirs (price on request) worn three or four together, or bangles (price on request) in which pearls are enveloped in vine-like diamond-set coils. She is now teaming the finest natural pearls with Paraíba tourmalines, pink diamonds or multicoloured diamonds to bring out the iridescence of the pearls and inject colour into these lively compositions.  

Colour is crucial to today’s mood of reinvention, says Peggy Grosz, vice president of Assael in New York, one of the world’s most revered pearl dealers. “There is still an untapped world of opportunity for pearls: the revolution is only just beginning,” says Grosz, who is working with Christina Assael, who oversees the business, to create a collection of pearl jewellery to be sold in Neiman Marcus stores. For Grosz, it’s all about pearls in rarefied, subtle, indefinable shades – particularly aubergine, olive, blue and silver Tahitian pearls (as opposed to the traditional dark grey-black and peacock). She mixes these with coloured gemstones to create unexpected tonal combinations, contrasts or harmonies of shape and form, and an interplay of light between iridescence and brilliance. She chooses stones that bring out the colours of the pearls: for example, earrings of pink-toned Tahitians topped with horizontal, diamond-shaped morganites ($24,500), pear-shaped aquamarines with green-toned Tahitians ($23,000) or two-toned tourmalines with two sizes and shades of Tahitian pearls hanging from them ($36,000). 

Grosz explains that some of the most stunning, even “shocking” colours come from Fiji, where the oysters produce large pearls with superb lustre, in extraordinarily vibrant hues. Assael is collaborating closely with Justin Hunter, who set up J Hunter Pearls in Fiji in 1999 to create jewellery that maximises the drama and freshness of Fiji pearls: a single multicoloured strand ($64,000) or earrings ($23,500) centred on elongated, tapered golden beryls or heliodors, topped and tailed with green-gold Fiji pearls, ingeniously articulated to move seductively when they are worn. “I have the best materials to work with, but I needed to do something that wasn’t already being done, conceptually,” says Grosz. 

The brand also collaborates with Connecticut-based master goldsmith and jeweller Sean Gilson who conceives and handcrafts its Bubble collection (bubbles clearly a leitmotif through this trend). He mixes different sizes of South Sea white and Akoya pearls to build cloud-like clusters on rings (from $5,700) and bangles ($24,000), all crafted so that very little metal hardware is visible among the satin-sheened frothy bubbles, which gives the pieces their modernity. He also mixes different shades and sizes of Tahitian pearls, and combines Tahitians with sustainable Sardinian coral beads – an entirely new and thrilling mix of colours and textures. “I think the parameters of ‘tradition’ are in the process of a paradigm shift,” Gilson explains. “The old pearl dealers’ narrow definitions of what was ‘good’ are gone.”

This shift is opening up all sorts of possibilities, and while the young guard of fashion-oriented designers opts for purity and minimalism and taps the accessibility of round white freshwater pearls, the more traditionally trained designer-jewellers are veering towards colour. London-based Jane Sarginson, one such designer-jeweller specialising in pearls and fine gemstones, takes a painterly approach to matching or complementing unexpected colours of pearls with gems, particularly for long, mismatched earrings (£16,500). Meanwhile Irish craftsman and goldsmith Nigel O’Reilly, working in his new atelier-salon in Mayo, likes to nestle single large South Sea or Tahitian pearls of subtle hues in sculptural arum-lily cocoons of gold, lined with pavé-set gemstones – a golden South Sea pearl with pink sapphires or a silver-green Tahitian with tsavorites in rings – so that there is a mutual reflection of light, lustre and colour.

Chrissie Coleman Douglas of Coleman Douglas Pearls celebrates her 30th anniversary with colour; appropriately, as it was her use of coloured pearls that disrupted the deeply traditional pearl market in 1989. This Christmas her celebratory collection called It’s a Long Story features double-drop pearl earrings (£199) and long strands, including a lariat (£714) of copper-coloured pearls with citrines, along with the brand’s signature, a crossover body ornament (£3,442).

Many different strands of innovation and ingenuity are at play, whether it’s working in pure white simplicity or exuberant colour, but all these pearl revolutionaries are agreed on one major factor fuelling the trend: the low-key luxury and preciousness embodied in the secretive pearl, and its ready-made organic luminous beauty that needs no fashioning or intervention.

“In an era that’s increasingly ‘non-bling’, someone can wear an $800,000 pearl necklace more casually than a $5,000 gemstone,” says Sean Gilson. Or, as Melanie Georgacopoulos puts it: “If a woman wears diamonds, you look at the diamonds; if a woman wears pearls, you look at the woman.”

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