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A history of rebel pearls

by Maja Bayyoud on

Pearls and intrigue go together like mink furs and old Hollywood stars. From acting as a bulletproof vest for Russian royalty to helping Cleopatra win a flirty bet, they’re a gem in more ways than one. 

The Motley x Frances Wadsworth Jones ‘Screw You’ collection celebrates pearls, with a healthy dose of rebellion thrown in. And if you take a closer look at their history, Frances is tapping into an undercurrent of subversion that's always counteracted their polished reputation. 

Pearls can only be formed when a bit of matter (like a stone or parasite) is embedded in an oyster’s soft tissue, so in a sense they’re a freakish natural anomaly. They are special, and people have endowed them with all kinds of meaning and symbolism. Here are some of the biggest, baddest and wildest moments in pearly history.

c.40s BC: Cleopatra and the most expensive dinner in history

Cleopatra's pearl in a glass of vinegar

How far is too far when it comes to winning a bet? If you’re Ancient Egyptian royalty, it’s a lusty power move that’s worth a few cracked eggs. Or melted pearls. Legend has it Cleo bet Marc Antony she could serve the most expensive dinner in history. He took the bet and watched as she dissolved two giant pearls plucked from her ears in two glasses of wine (or vinegar, but let’s go with wine). She drank one and offered him the other. He declined, but conceded she had won. This is a legend, but one I choose to believe. Perhaps the day comes for everyone to have a ‘pearl in the wine’ power move moment. 

c.1500s - Present: La Peregrina Pearl 

La Peregrina on Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth 1

La Peregrina is the most notorious pearl in history. It’s the Al Capone of pearls, even rumoured to be cursed. La Peregrina was discovered by a slave in Panama in the 1400s, who supposedly won his freedom in exchange for finding something so beautiful. It spent the next 500 years bouncing around Europe’s royal houses, never staying in one place long enough to call it home. Finally, Richard Burton bought it for Elizabeth Taylor in the sixties. Here’s her favourite story about it, in her own words:

“At one point I reached down to touch La Peregrina and it wasn't there! I glanced over at Richard and thank God he wasn't looking at me... I went into the bedroom and threw myself on the bed, buried my head into the pillow and screamed ... looking everywhere for the pearl. Nothing. I just casually opened the puppy's mouth and inside his mouth was the most perfect pearl in the world.”

The best part? This all happened in Las Vegas, at Caesar’s Palace. Not quite Buckingham or one of La Peregrina’s more illustrious royal homes. But a palace nonetheless. 

c.1533: Anne Boleyn’s necklace 

When it comes to rebellious queens, Anne, wife of Tudor King Henry VIII, tops the list. Witch, Adulterer, The Scandal of Christendom - she’d heard it all by the time she hit the chopping block. Her “B” pearl necklace is one of those things that’s strangely ubiquitous today, possibly because it featured on the American TV show Ugly Betty. Nobody knows what happened to Anne’s necklace, but there’s a theory that a Boleyn loyalist saved it for Elizabeth I, who reset it in her own jewellery. Which would be a nicer ending for the necklace than the one Anne herself faced. 

c.1665: Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring 

Girl with a pearl earring

Like Anne’s Necklace or anything with Frida Kahlo’s face on it, this is one we’re all very familiar with. It remains shrouded in mystery. Nobody knows who the girl is, although in her best-selling novel, Tracy Chevalier imagined her to be a maid in Vermeer’s household. Originally, a pearl earring symbolised a chaste woman who would not let impure words pass through her ears. That hasn’t aged well. But the soulful gaze of the girl continues to mesmerise to this day. 

c.1856: Men in Pearls

The original men in pearls were the Gaekward Maharajahs, most notably Khanderao the Second. All the trend-setting men are donning a string of pearls this year, from Harry Styles to Billie Porter. But all they are proving is that fashion is circular, and every trend eventually comes back around. Khanderao the Second’s seven-stranded-pearl necklace puts to shame the one-stranded version considered avant-garde on men today.

1870: Pearly Kings and Queens 

Pearly Queen

Not technically proper pearls, but too good to miss out. Most stories about pearls involve rich people or royal people, but this one is about an orphan called Henry Croft. He grew up in the East End of London (in the 1870s, way before well-off urbanites started living there). He decided to wear a suit encrusted with mother-of-pearl buttons to attract attention when raising money for charity. The look took off, bringing much-needed flair to the gritty East End streets. The suits became laden with symbolism, and Pearly Kings and Queens (known as Pearlies) emerged. Suits are passed down from generation to generation, and despite stiff rivalry between Pearly families, all are devoted to charity and fundraising. Pearlies are just about the loveliest combination of benevolence, rebellion and panache anyone could ask for. 

1918: Romanov Kevlar

The grisly tale of how the Romanovs were secretly murdered by Bolsheviks in the 1920s is well known. Rumour had it that they survived the initial round of bullets thanks to diamonds and pearls sewn into their corsets. Hundreds of imposters posed as surviving Romanovs for decades, mostly as the young princess Anastasia. This was one of the most hotly debated rumours of the century, even after it was conclusively disproved. It was so pervasive that Disney turned it into a movie, which they don’t do about just any old royal assassination rumour. 

2015: Lupita Nyong'o's stolen pearl dress 

We all want to be Lupita when we grow up, and we never wanted it more than when she wore her Pearl dress to the 2015 Oscars. At the ceremony, the world gasped in awe at the dress supposedly embellished with 6,000 Akoya cultured pearls and valued at $150,000. In a dramatic twist of events, the dress was stolen by thieves the very next day. In an even more dramatic turn of events, it was promptly returned once the thieves discovered the pearls were fake. 

2020: Motley x Frances Wadsworth Jones 

The ways in which pearls have been set in jewellery are by and large pretty standard. You’ve got your string of pearls and your pearl earrings, and not much else. Frances changes how we think of them, and by extension how we think of classically feminine jewellery. Pearly renegades of times gone by would have definitely approved of her collection. Read an interview with Frances here

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