The World in an Oyster

    22 September 2012

    I nearly always wear pearls. When I was a little girl I had a picture of Louise Brooks on my bedroom wall, before I knew who she was, because I admired the way she looked. I would stare at my poster of Louise Brooks, absorbed by her look of dignified determination set off by the upward tilt of her head, her focused, intelligent eyes, her short hair and pearls. If you stared at that poster for long enough you could see rebellion in the eyes. But her expression was calm and sophisticated. She wore pearls, with their symbol of purity and elegance. I wanted to be like her.

    Many of my childhood female icons wore pearls: Jackie Onassis, Grace Kelly, Amelia Earhart and Wallis Simpson. They were women who led wildly different lives. But their style was classic, evoking decorum, self-awareness and confidence without arrogance. It is the dignity and elegance, strength and fortitude worn in the right proportions that I am compelled by.

    ‘A woman needs ropes of pearls,’ said Coco Chanel. Chanel, like Brooks, must have had bravery and perseverance to come out of a life of deprivation and poverty to achieve her iconic status. Flappers, a word evocative of birds about to take flight, wore pearls. as a woman in the 1920s it must have been easy to feel bitter, but this is not an admirable response to adversity. No, it is more persuasive to be brave and beautiful and feminine, to combine courage with decorum. Pearls with their lustre, their subtle glow are striking without being ostentatious.

    When a woman needs to demonstrate both restraint and power, pearls are just the job. Both the Queen and Michelle Obama wear them; for both women, intelligence and confidence combined with modesty and grace are essential to their image.

    Pearls were once very exclusive. In most European countries in the 13th and 14th centuries, only a very few people could afford them. They continued to be very expensive for a long time. In 1917, Mr Cartier bought his Fifth Avenue headquarters in New York with $100 in cash and a two-strand natural pearl necklace valued at a million dollars. In 1957, the same necklace was auctioned for $157,000.

    Pearls have become less rare, especially with the arrival of cultured pearls on the international market in the 1930s, and therefore less expensive and exclusive. Now, wearing pearls attests more to a woman’s taste than her actual wealth. Princess Diana wore her Kenneth Jay Lane pearls interchangeably with the much more valuable pearls from the vaults of the English crown jewels. Pearls represent an attitude rather than a ‘bling’ factor.

    A Mikimoto Akoya culturedpearl strandnecklace
    A Mikimoto Akoya culturedpearl strandnecklace

    The similarity between Jackie Onassis, Grace Kelly, Amelia Earhart and Wallis Simpson is their seemingly effortless chic. The irony is how important the clothes, hair and jewels are in creating this image. Think of the Amelia Earhart with her crop of hair which looks like she cut it with a pair of gardening shears. For none of these women was the casual look coincidental — it was calculated. And it was clever, because who wants to look as if they have spent ages preening themselves in the mirror? For a start, it might suggest they have nothing better to do.

    The other thing these inspiring women had in common: they all wore pearls.

    When I was a teenager, girls who wore pearls were sloanes. To avoid the confusion, I shunned pearls for a bit. Nothing wrong with being a sloane but I didn’t want to be mistaken for one. I am entirely urban with no real experience of the countryside and finding a suitable husband was never a priority. I looked forward to being older so I could be what I wanted in pearls. I dreamt of independence, combining work with life, children and a house.

    The three times I have packed my bag to go to the hospital to have a baby I have brought my pearls. To me, no other jewel could be as pure or as motherly or as beautiful. As a mother, I want my children to feel the tenderness of my love but never to doubt my strength.

    Pearls look good on all occasions: a serious meeting, a social gathering. Pearls vary in colour, lustre, size, surface and shape — this affects their value. And they can be worn in different ways. But it is the choice to wear pearls that makes the real statement. Traditionally, pearls are passed down through generations.

    The fashion designer Donald Brooks once said, ‘you can turn an absolute whore into a lady by just putting pearls around her neck.’ I do not wear pearls because I am posh — I wear them because I like them. They are not my grandmother’s pearls; they were given to me by my boyfriend. If assumptions are made about me because I wear pearls, it is as annoying or amusing and usually as predictable as any other assumption based on superficial observations. I wear them because I like their lustre, elegance and versatility. I like they way their shine improves the more you wear them. I wear pearls on the school run, to the gym and to bed, as well as to more formal occasions.

    But my real attachment to pearls is because the images of some women who have worn them have been an inspiration. They have fuelled my ambition to be an actress as well as a certain kind of woman.