Between Downton Abbey, The Crown, and The Favourite, costume designers are more enamored than ever with pearls—which means it’s the perfect time for jewelers to capitalize on pop culture’s obsession with the classic gem
Pearls are so timeless that touting their trendiness may seem counter to their nature—unless you hope to sell more of them. The jewelry industry is officially having a pearl renaissance, a flame fanned by the appearance of pearl jewelry on fashion runways, in hit TV shows (Netflix’s The Crown) and feature films (Crazy Rich Asians, The Favourite), and among a crop of designers who are reinventing the classics.
“Any film that’s come out [referencing] Jackie Kennedy has spurred interest in pearls,” says Beth Bernstein, jewelry author, historian, and founder of the online magazine BeJeweled. “The same is true of movies about Chanel, who mixed pearls with other chains and gemstones.”
Likewise, Daphne Lingon, head of jewelry for Christie’s Americas, has observed younger collectors cultivating an interest in pearls—and contemporary jewelry designers incorporating the gems in innovative ways. “I do think there is some correlation with period dramas in films and television,” she says, “as viewers are exposed to more historic costumes, accessories, and jewelry.”
Sorrento collection Deco four-row necklace, $3,815, Deco seven-row collar necklace, $7,360, with 4 mm–5 mm freshwater pearls and diamonds in 18k white gold; Mastoloni; 800-347-3275; mastoloni.com
Pearls have a long history on the big screen (see “Highlight Reel” sidebar). How do they end up in a movie to begin with? Credit the costume designer, who is well aware that his or her choices may influence trends. At the moment, pearls are most visible in historical films and TV shows, but pulling pieces for such productions isn’t always a case of sourcing antique jewels or replicas.
“Even in a period piece, it helps to slip in elements that look right in the present-day time period,” explains Jojo MacDowall, a stylist who has worked on films such as Tully and Cold Pursuit and innumerable TV shows. “Otherwise it can look too much like a costume and less like a real, relatable character.”
When choosing jewelry for an actor to wear, MacDowall considers questions such as where the character acquired the piece and its meaning in the story. “I consider it part of my job to source pieces that are on the cusp of fashion so that when the show comes out, the look is fresh and current,” MacDowall says. “Hopefully, people will see these looks and love them and emulate them in some way.”
Elixir d’Amour necklace with South Sea pearl, 14.45 cts. t.w. diamonds, and 5.24 ct. andesine in 18k white and yellow gold, $272,000, Jewelmer, email@example.com, jewelmer.com; antique brooch/pendant with 47 ct. blue sapphire, 18.1 cts. t.w. diamonds, and pearls in 18k gold and silver, $800,000, Assael, 212-819-0060, assael.com
The Business of Desire
While the world of film and television can spark major fashion trends, does the current on-screen popularity of pearls have the power to create a consumer craze? “People seeing The Favourite already know how they feel about pearls,” says Aja Raden, author of the best seller Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World. “They have them, or they want them, or both. For instance, I left The Favourite thinking, ‘I should restring one of my really big pearl necklaces like that, to tie in the back with ribbon.’ ”
Indie films like The Favourite, however, are unlikely to do for pearls what, say, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes did for gemstone parures, what Titanic did for heart-shape blue pendants, or what Breakfast at Tiffany’s did for oversized, multistrand pearl necklaces with jeweled clasps. “They’re not big enough movies with a wide enough reach or a lasting enough cultural impact to move the jewelry market,” Raden says. “They’re not iconic enough to inspire mass emulation.”
Fair enough, but savvy retailers can still cast pearls as something newly desirable and relevant by tying them to a larger cultural moment—one that speaks not only to the romance and allure of vintage style but also to the idea of women in power, including the queens, princesses, and fashion icons who have been wearing them for centuries. “Emphasize the association with royalty,” Raden says of pearl jewelry. “In many times and places, only monarchs were allowed to own them. The appeal of pearls has always been timelessness and exclusivity and, frankly, that they’re a class signifier. Remember that you’re selling an heirloom, something priceless and rare.”
Star earrings with 10.7 mm gray Tahitian pearls and 0.5 ct. t.w. pavé diamonds in
18k yellow gold, $4,200, Sandra Dixon Studios, firstname.lastname@example.org,
sandradixonstudios.com; Three Graces talisman on necklace of 7 mm freshwater pearls, $480, Pyrrha, email@example.com, pyrrha.com
Seizing the Moment
The challenge for retailers is to acknowledge the current pearl renaissance—and even use it to market their pearl assortment—while not detracting from the qualities that are essential to pearl jewelry: classic elegance, femininity, and versatility.
“There’s a neutrality to pearls that makes them the ultimate for blending, either with the wearer’s skin tone or mixed with other jewelry styles,” says Diana Singer, owner of Abbott & Austin, an estate jewelry business in New York City. When it comes to selling, she says, customers “appreciate things being pointed out to them and emphasized. It’s good to be reminded that pearls have been around for centuries and have always been great, and now’s a great time to repurpose them and wear them in unexpected ways.”
Use your blogs, social media, and email newsletters to keep customers and clients informed about the cultural relevance of pearls by, for example, highlighting a movie like The Favourite; reporting on a related event such as the recent “Jewelry: The Body Transformed” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; or delving into other timely topics such as female empowerment. “The more sophisticated jewelry buyer is affected by an all-encompassing film/fashion/collectibility/historical wave as it relates to pearls,” says Peggy Grosz, vice president of development at pearl specialist Assael.
Bernstein suggests creating inspirational displays based on current or classic films that involve pearls to draw the customer in and add allure to the product. “You can also splice some videos of favorite movies and the pearls shown in them and have them playing on screens in the background of your store and then point out something similar from your collection,” she says.
And later this year, when the Downton Abbey movie comes out? Make sure you have skin in the game. A party themed around the release of the film would be a great way to kick off a pearl event. “In the trailers, I have seen Maggie Smith wearing pearl earrings and other actresses wearing pearl necklaces,” Bernstein says. “The film starts in 1927, so there will definitely be pearls to be seen—and stores can start to promote it now.”
Earrings with sapphires, pearls, and micromosaic of seed pearls in gold-plated silver, €390 ($438), Percossi Papi, firstname.lastname@example.org, percossipapi.com; Lydia pendant with large freshwater pink pearl in 22k peach gold and diamonds on 18k pink gold enhancer, $3,960, Lika Behar, email@example.com, likabehar.com
A look at pearl jewelry’s most memorable—and influential—on-screen appearances
Rear Window (1954)
As fashion editor Lisa Fremont, future princess Grace Kelly had a luminous presence in the iconic Hitchcock film, aided by a striking string of pearls and a multistrand charm bracelet.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
More than 50 years after this beloved movie’s release, women of all ages continue to be enchanted by Audrey Hepburn as the glamorous Holly Golightly wearing piles of pearls in the now-iconic opening scene.
The Great Gatsby (1974)
Cartier provided the jewels for this film, which caused swingy, opera-length strands to make a comeback. Mia Farrow even appeared on the cover of the very first issue of People magazine, dressed in character as Daisy Buchanan with one of those pearl necklaces in her teeth.
Tin Cup (1996)
Late 1990s jewelry sales were dominated by a gazillion different versions of the necklace—a Wendy Brigode design with small pearls placed at widely spaced stations on a silk thread—sported by Rene Russo in this film about golf and golfers.
Cate Blanchett nailed her portrayal of the famous Tudor queen in a wardrobe that included myriad pearl headdresses and sumptuous pearl-strewn gowns and robes, worn with the grace and confidence of the monarch herself.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)
Italian jeweler Percossi Papi provided the jewelry for this sequel (also starring Blanchett), much of it featuring or accented with pearls. Alexandra Byrne went on to win an Oscar for her costume design.
Downton Abbey (2011)
Chronicling post–Edwardian era fashion and the Art Deco stylings of the Roaring ’20s, the PBS drama series dangled innumerable pearl necklaces and earrings in front of a massive viewership during its six-season run. A feature film based on the show is slated for release in September.
The Great Gatsby (2013)
Baz Luhrmann’s reboot of the iconic Jazz Age story involved a collaboration with Tiffany & Co. that included authentic Art Deco jewels from the house’s collection and newly minted pieces inspired by 1920s-era archival designs, many featuring cultured pearls with diamonds.
The Crown (2016)
It’s impossible to watch any episode of this popular Netflix show without noticing—and coveting—the array of pearls worn by Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II and Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret. Season 3, currently in production, will star Olivia Colman (a recent Oscar winner for her portrayal of Queen Anne in The Favourite) as Elizabeth.
Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
Pearl and diamond earrings designed by Mouawad played a pivotal role in the life of Gemma Chan’s character, Astrid—not to mention the one-of-a-kind multistrand pearl, emerald, ruby, and diamond necklace that Michelle Yeoh’s character, Eleanor Young, wore as her family’s formidable matriarch.
The Favourite (2018)
Pearl jewelry appeared throughout this film about Queen Anne’s love life circa 1708, with all manner of chokers and drop earrings adorning the central characters. Can an indie movie spark a demand for pearl jewelry on a macro scale? Probably not, but it may well prompt pearl sellers and designers to use their Favourite looks as inspiration.
(The Crown: Courtesy Netflix (3); Guard: Fotovoyager/E+/Getty; Big Ben: Nerthuz/iStock/Getty; The Favourite: © Twentieth Century Fox Film (2); Elizabeth: The Golden Age: Universal/Everett; Downton Abbey: PBS/photofest; The Great Gatsby: (Mulligan) Warner Bros. Pictures/Everett; (Farrow) Everett; Morgan 4/4 80th Anniversary Edition Car: morgan-motor.co.uk)