A single strand of pearls is a common thread among Southern women’s jewelry boxes. While a very traditional type of jewelry, pearls have staying power and continue to show up on women of all ages in traditional and contemporary designs.
A symbol of stature and elegance, and a marker of milestone events, the strand of pearls is synonymous with stylish women, not limited to Jackie O. and Audrey Hepburn. Before Elizabeth Taylor sported the La Peregrina — and even before it was gifted to Mary I, Queen of England — pearls reigned supreme in the world of gems and jewelry. “Back then, a pearl could buy a whole country,” says James Gattas, owner of James Gattas Jewelers in Memphis, of the rare treasures sought out by daring divers.
Cherished and admired for its understated opulence, the iconic freshwater and saltwater gem has graced the necks of starlets, queens and kings, leading ladies, and yes, even our grandmothers. And women of today are also enjoying their pearls.
“There has been a resurgence not just with pearl strands, but with more unique styles,” James continues, explaining the growing trend proving that pearls are not just for your grandma’s jewelry box.
The timeless gems waned in popularity as they earned a reputation of being a critical component in older women’s jewelry collections, especially church-goers sporting twin sets, until recently. Today, pearls are enjoying a re-entry into the spotlight.
There is a lot to learn about the history and culture of pearls, a fascinating gem. Today, we hear from fine jewelry experts from around the South, who describe historical trends and celebrate current pearl prices.
Most commonly, pearls are identified as Akoya pearls (a small, white Japanese pearl), South Sea pearls (larger white and gold pearls from Indonesia, Australia and the Philippines) and Tahitian pearls (which come in beautiful hues of pink, black and grey). “There is a significant price difference with different classes and styles of pearls,” says Avani Rupa of Birmingham’s Avani Rupa Fine Jewelers owner Avani Rupa, explaining that a strand of pearls can range from a few hundred dollars to many thousands, depending on the origin, size and luster.
“Almost every country has shells that create natural pearls — conch shells in the Caribbean, abalone shells of California, scallop shells from Mexico,” pearl expert Gina Latendresse of American Pearl Company explains, but the most common homes for pearls are saltwater oysters and freshwater mussels. The chance of discovering a natural pearl is 1 in 10,000, making them a rare and expensive find in today’s market.
Natural pearls were superseded by the cultured pearls, which are cultivated and farmed, a technique made famous by Mikimoto Kōkichi in the early 1900s. The history books tell us that he was not the first to develop pearl culturing, but he popularized (and patented) the method. Mikimoto wanted to provide strands for the world at a more affordable cost and subsequently changed the industry. “Mikimoto is the most recognizable brand in the pearl industry and [cultures] some of the best pearls in the world,” Brian Hood of Bromberg’s says, attesting to the producer’s continued dedication to quality. Bromberg’s jewelry cases display a variety of Mikimoto pearls, and a classic strand of pearls in their selection ranges from $2,000 to $6,000.
Pearls are naturally formed or cultured in freshwater or saltwater, and the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee River systems are ripe with freshwater mussels. After much experimentation, Mikimoto discovered the overwhelming success that came with inserting round nuclei cut from mussel shells found in the United States. Gina states that “60% of Mikimoto cultured pearl seeds come from the Tennessee rivers and their tributaries.”
Gina’s father John Latendresse started American Pearl Farm in Camden, Tennessee, and began farming shells, which he later exported to Japan through American Pearl Company. John was an exporter and importer of shells and pearls, and an essential figure in the American world of pearls. American Pearl Company, now under the leadership of Gina, still holds an extensive collection of natural and cultured pearls from the waters of North American.
The Sain and Latendresse families have been working together for more than 50 years, and a selection of the uniquely shaped pearls are found at EJ Sain, in Nashville. “We get excited about the different styles and looks,” says Gennette Sain Norman of the Tennessee pearls, which come in all shapes and sizes.
Pearls strung simply into a strand stand the test of time and remain a popular choice for all ages today, but with the resurgence of pearls in the context of fashion, women are also looking to add unique styles to their collections. “You can use pearls to create something artistic and beautiful,” James Gattas says. Many young women are looking to reinvent their grandmother’s strands into something more suited to their style. Common trends spotted by each of the Southern jewelers we spoke with include: the layering of different length, style and color pearl strands; custom strands; longer lengths; the addition of diamonds; and mixing of colored pearls.
When it comes to colors, which is determined by the lip of the mollusk, pearls range from white and pink to gold and grey. Shannon Waits, who has been designing and stringing pearls at Clater Jewelers in Louisville since 1994, notes the popularity of black Tahitian pearls. Rose and pink tones are popular in the spring and summer, so expect to see more of those this season. When it comes to white pearls, there is a “luminous effect, and they take on the tone of whatever you are wearing,” says Shannon, who is not alone in the belief that pearls attract light and brighten your face.
“Let’s have fun with our jewelry, and let’s make what’s old new again,” Shannon says, reminding us that everyone can wear pearls — not just your grandmother. Family heirlooms, treasured pieces and of-the-moment styles, pearls continue to be an iconic piece in every woman’s collection.
When shopping for pearls, consult the experts to ensure you find quality pearls. Aside from that, there are no rules to wearing them. “Find the pearl that fits you,” says Avani Rupa.
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