When I was born, my grandmother had one perfect, dainty pearl knotted and placed on a golden chain necklace. By the time I’d receive the gift on my 16th birthday, it would look quite different.
“Pearls are always appropriate,” the timeless Jackie Kennedy said.
In Charleston, it turns out, this is especially true.
“I’ve only been doing this for 48 years, and I think a woman should have pearls in her wardrobe,” says Nice Ice owner and master jeweler Marilyn Hoffman, with a chuckle, touching the baroque pearl and chain necklace looped around her own neck. “They’re a classic.”
On my 16th birthday, when my mother revealed my gift, the necklace that was started at my birth now carried 16 matching pearls, knotted with the same delicate care my grandmother and then mother had taken when choosing the keepsakes. Because diamonds may be forever, but pearls, as Hoffman says, are the classic treasure.
Whether it’s a build-a-pearl necklace, an iconic strand a la Kennedy or one of the inventive new Mizuki pieces at Croghan’s Jewel Box on King Street— jewelers around Charleston are crafting pearls for every season, occasion, wearer and style.
“Charleston is such a beautiful and historic city, yet it also embraces modern thoughts and styling,” says Gabrielle Egan, the owner-designer behind Charleston’s Peyton William Jewelry, who handcrafts pieces with baroque, peacock, Tahitian and freshwater pearls. “You can wear pearls all year long in Charleston. You can dress them up or wear them out with a simple white T-shirt and jeans.”
Over at Croghan’s, Rhett Outten couldn’t agree more: “Charlestonians wear pearls for all occasions, from summer whites to ball gowns. They are a staple in a Southerner’s wardrobe.”
Styles range from the classic single strand of perfectly round white pearls to airy modern designs that feature pearls of unusual shapes, often combined with gemstones.
“It’s no longer a specific style. Designers have a whole new perspective,” says Charleston Style & Design’s resident stylist, Alexandra Munzel, who is seeing the jewelry staple used in increasingly ingenious ways. “I’m seeing more freshwater pearls, black pearls and imperfect pearls. And pearls in asymmetrical settings or as a statement piece in a ring or bracelet.”
At Croghan’s, a century-old family shop, you will find everything from cultured to freshwater to Tahitian pearls, including strands with jeweled clasps or antique pins reimagined as pendants. A new pearl designer from Japan, Mizuki, just became one of Croghan’s select few.
“She brings a fresh, modern take on pearl jewelry to our store,” says Outten of the large, gold-dipped baroque pearls and wire-looped creations that Mizuki designs, one of which made the cover of O, The Oprah Magazine.
“Designers are bringing a modern outlook to their pieces,” explains Munzel. “I like an edgier style, personally, like a ring with an enlarged freshwater black pearl. You don’t have to conform to the preppy look.”
Incorporating pearls onto blazer lapels, dropping pearl earrings into a diamond jacket for a more versatile wear, or adding black pearls for a winter look—resourceful stylings like these bring pearls out into everyday life.
“Who wants jewelry that is only worn a few times in a lifetime?” queries Outten, who often reworks customers’ existing pieces or incorporates an heirloom into a new design. “We try to help customers make pearl jewelry versatile.”
At Peyton William, Egan is an experimental alchemist of sorts when it comes to pearls, mixing them with classic but unexpected counterparts, like horn, wood and semiprecious stones. For her baroque pearl lariat necklaces, Egan accents the large pearls with Siloni moonstones and other gems for infinite possible combinations.
“Think about alternative ways to wear your pearls by mixing and matching with other styles of jewelry or materials to make it your own unique look,” says Egan.
Her best advice? Buy what you like. Pearls, after all, don’t go out of style.
Contemporary twists on the pearl may not be for everyone, though, which is why nearly every high-end jeweler still maintains a carefully vetted selection of classic styles. At Nice Ice, Hoffman personally inspects pearls for her shop, looking for the roundest specimens with the greatest luster. Many of her high-end South Sea pearls are size 11 or larger.
“Pearls were always my first sale,” says Hoffman, who has been in the jewelry business for over half her lifetime. “When a man would come in, he wanted pearls first.”
Like the pearl necklace that started at my birth, pearls are often a gift or special occasion piece, which lends them well to that iconic Jackie O. style.
“The luster of pearls illuminates the skin, which could be why they’re typically worn for once-in-a-lifetime occasions, like a graduation, debutante ball or wedding,” says Outten. “We lean toward the more classic styles. Most brides desire timeless pearl jewelry to complete their look. Most women at some point in their lives want a simple strand of pearls.”
Especially with pearls, classic is not synonymous with stale.
“A classic strand of pearls is a staple in any wardrobe, but they can also be exciting when paired with something unexpected,” says Egan.
The purpose of precious jewelry is, after all, to be precious— to be enjoyed.
“The pearl, like many stones, is a collector’s item,” says Munzel. “You don’t buy a ton of them. An individual finds pearls that fit her personality and enjoys them for years.”
And in Charleston, it seems, there’s a style of pearl for everyone and every occasion.
Enid Spitz is a Charleston-based writer, yoga instructor and avid traveller. You can follow her on Instagram @littleyogibird.
MORE ABOUT PEARLS
Types of pearls: A pearl is made of layers of calcium carbonate (nacre) that forms when an irritant enters the shell of an oyster. Naturally occurring pearls are rare; most are “cultured” by inserting foreign material into an oyster’s shell. Pearls come in all shapes, sizes and colors, both from salt and fresh water. Among the most expensive are Japan’s Akoya pearls (up to 10mm), prized for their perfectly round shape, white color and high luster, and Australia’s large South Sea pearls (up to 20mm), which need not be perfectly round to be valuable. Less expensive pearls, however, of excellent quality, are farmed all over the world.
Caring for your pearls: Pearls need special care, because they’re created from layers and layers of nacre inside an oyster, which can be damaged by hard edges or impact. “Pearls should be kept in a cool, dry environment and should never be exposed to things like hairspray, lotion or perfumes,” says Outten. “To keep them safe store them flat in velvet drawstring pouches away from the sun or any kind of heat. Pearls should be kept separate from your other jewelry items to prevent scratches.”
Restringing pearls is common and necessary: Even the finest pearl necklaces will show natural wear. Quality pieces are carefully knotted between each pearl to keep them secure, but: “most pearls are strung on a silk thread and water certainly weakens the thread, leaving necklaces and bracelets susceptible to breaking,” says Outten. “Pearls that are worn often should be restrung every couple of years.”
Selecting pearls: “The finest pearls are perfectly round spheres with layers and layers of nacre that has built up to create a deep and lustrous surface,” says Outten. In 1987, the Gemological Institute of America finally created a standardized grading chart, but pearl quality is still difficult to test due to the many factors: size, shape, color, luster and surface. It’s best to consult an expert when buying. Experts do agree on the teeth test, though. “The best test to tell if a pearl is actually real is rubbing the pearl against your teeth and testing for the grit, which does not exist on a synthetic pearl,” says Outten. “There should be a bit of drag when you touch it to your teeth.”
“Also, checking a strand under light is a good way to see the actual color of the pearls,” says Egan. “Unless they are very expensive, the color will vary from pearl to pearl.”