Lupita’s Pearl Dress and the Nuances of Nomenclature

By now, you’ve probably heard the saga of the dress. Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o wore a spectacular Calvin Klein gown made from a reported 6,000 pearls to last week’s Academy Awards. On Tuesday, the dress, an enchanting halter style designed by women’s creative director Francisco Costa, went missing from her room at the London in West Hollywood, Calif.

Photo by Mike Nelson/EPA/Alamy

Lupita Nyong’o in that dress

News headlines around the world screamed about the theft of the dress, repeatedly described as being worth $150,000. What happened next, as reported by the gossip site TMZ, was stranger than fiction: On Thursday, the dress was found behind a bathroom counter on the second floor of the hotel.

According to TMZ, the alleged thief called the gossip show on Friday and said that he’d stolen the dress by throwing it off the balcony to an accomplice waiting on the ground below (cleverly dodging security cameras). He then took two pearls off the dress and had them sized up in L.A.’s garment district only to discover that they were fake. He subsequently returned the dress (we think). The revelation unleashed a storm of controversy about the value of the dress and the nature of its pearls.

Were they “natural pearls,” as Costa was quoted as saying to Vogue? Or cultured pearls? Or faux pearls? And why were so many news outlets reporting on the dress without specifying their true nature?

Most perplexingly, the Costa quote in the Vogue story seemed to confuse types of pearls with pearl qualities: “We looked at a variety of different pearls—South Sea, iridescent, and natural—and decided that the natural pearls looked the most beautiful,” Costa said.

For the record, South Sea pearls are large, lustrous white or golden pearls found in the Pinctada maxima oyster, which tends to reside in the tropical waters off Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. They can be cultured or natural, but the vast majority of South Sea pearls on the market are cultured.

Iridescent is a term used to describe all kinds of pearls. The Tahitian variety, found in the Pinctada margaritifera oyster, have a lovely iridescence, but the quality is not limited to Tahitians.

Natural pearls are the rarest of the bunch—by a long shot. To be clear, here’s GIA’s succinct take on the difference between natural and cultured pearls:

“When a foreign body becomes lodged inside a mollusk, the organism develops a sac around the irritant, secreting calcium carbonate in the form of nacre to cover it. As the mollusk deposits layers of nacre, the pearl gradually grows in size. Natural pearls occur randomly in nature, without the aid of human intervention and are quite rare. Cultured pearls are cultivated by man when technicians instigate nacre formation process.”

Given all this info, I can confidently say there is no way in hell Costa would have used natural pearls on the dress—nor would any dealer in his or her right mind have let him. Natural pearls are so scarce that finding enough of them would have been a years-long endeavor, to say nothing of paying for them.

About four years ago, a Tiffany & Co. necklace featuring 69 graduated natural pearls sold for $434,500 at Christie’s New York, more than seven times the $60,000 presale estimate. In April 2007, a suite of natural pearls owned by the Maharajah of Baroda fetched $7.1 million.

To give you an idea of how much the dress would have cost if it were made of natural pearls, here’s a headline from a press release from AmericanPearl.com:

“Lupita Nyongo’s Pearl Dress by Calvin Klein Greatly Undervalued at $150k, True Value Would Be Over $1 Million for Natural Pearls”

Even if Costa had called them “natural pearls,” I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he meant natural as in “not fake.” Because that’s the only reasonable conclusion you can draw if you know anything about the pearl market. (Of course, now, Costa’s team is denying they ever described the pearls as anything but fake.)

The upshot here is simple: When you sell pearls, be sure to specify what they are. Nine-point-nine times out of 10 they will be cultured, so make sure your cases are appropriately marked. Know the difference between akoyas, freshwater pearls, keshi pearls, and the myriad new varieties entering the marketplace—and communicate them to your customers. Take advantage of the confusion and have a pearl party; invite a pearl expert to explain the differences (the Cultured Pearl Association of America is a great resource). But above all, revel in the fact that pearls can generate this much news coverage!