Pearls have been on the radar of jewelry designers in recent years, with the luminous gem figuring a lot in fashion-forward jewelry pieces. Further fuelling their popularity are high-profile individuals donning the beloved pearl, including Emma Stone’s unconventional pearl engagement ring as well as US Vice President Kamala Harris’ show-stopping pearl necklace during her inauguration.
Celebrity patronage is helping introduce pearls to a new generation of consumers, thanks to jewelers’ daring and edgier designs. One designer who constantly pushes the boundaries of pearl jewelry design is Melanie Georgacopoulos of Greece. She is well-known for her audacious sculptural creations, which she produces for her own company and for Japanese jeweler Tasaki under their joint brand M/G TASAKI.
Her love affair with pearls started during her years at the Royal College of Art. “Initially, I was just curious. At the time, it was a material not often used in contemporary jewelry and I felt there was a lot I could do with it,” revealed Georgacopoulos. Pearls are not only beautiful and versatile in terms of size and color, but they are also a sustainable gem option, she added.
Defying convention, Georgacopoulos deconstructs age-old concepts of pearls, elevating them into the domains of wearable art and sculpture. She cuts, carves, and slices her pearls, moving them away from their traditional context. “Lately, I’ve been combining pearls with mother-of-pearl. I focus on the design and concept rather than the intrinsic value of each pearl,” she noted. This is evident in her Nacre Necklace, which features South Sea pearls sliced into graduated spheres and combined with flat segments of mother-of-pearl to create a graphic, sculptural feel.
A leader in the rare pearl market, Assael meanwhile injects modernity into its designs with a fresh take on the classic cluster style. Its latest Bubble Collection, designed in collaboration with jeweler Sean Gilson, uses new techniques to create light and effervescent designs that seamlessly float and merge to form bubbles.
Peggy Grosz, senior vice president of Assael, remarked, “Many designers like us are also using pearls as sculptures, more so nowadays than ever before.”
Singapore-based jeweler State Property first introduced pearls in its Unfold Collection, inspired by the life cycle of stars and their formation. The brand’s contemporary approach to design juxtaposes modern sci-fi themes with the classic pearl. State Property Co-Founder Afzal Imram explained, “We drew similarities between sci-fi concepts and how pearls are formed, and we decided that pearls would be the primary gem for that collection.”
State Property weaves functionality into its designs. The Anaphora choker, for instance, features links doubling as clasps for easy wearing. Clean silhouettes and gold links paired with spherical pearls add contrast and modern sophistication to the classic pearl necklace.
Other contemporary jewelry designers also offer ingenious ways to design around pearls. New York-based jewelry designer Matthew Harris of Mateo opted for sleek, minimalist contours for his “Not Your Mother’s Pearl Necklace.”
Thai-Swiss designer Sophie Rogers of Pacharee, for her part, celebrates imperfection thus she works mainly with baroque and Keshi pearls. Irregular shapes, raw edges, and organic textures are framed by plated gold details for a natural and earthy look.
Some jewelers use new embedding techniques to set other gems inside the pearl. State Property’s Arcane Collection, for example, features pearls as a backdrop to diamonds, achieving a soft iridescence that contrasts with the diamonds’ brilliance.
Floating pearls studded with a diamond also appear in jeweler KATKIM’s range of modern ear pins and cuffs that curve around the ear lobe. Despite the pearl’s versatility, designing around it also has inherent challenges. KATKIM founder Katherine Kim explains how complicated carving and setting diamonds into pearls can be. “Pearls are very delicate and relatively soft so they can be susceptible to scratches and damage. This poses a challenge, especially when we are drilling them for stone setting,” she noted.
Diamonds or pearls are set into mother-of-pearl to create a cushion-like effect in Georgacopoulos’ Carats Collection. Georgacopoulos agreed that there is a downside to designing pearls. “Each collection I’ve created so far used a certain type of pearl throughout. In the Carats Collection, I used only natural Hippopus pearls. In this way, I can explore a particular pearl variety to its full potential,” she disclosed.
Grosz of Assael explained the importance of considering the pearl shape before conceptualizing a design. “That is a challenge in itself and the beauty of working with pearls,” she added. Rogers of Pacharee meanwhile underscored difficulties in working with rare and irregular shapes. She commented, “We cannot do mass production using molds. Each piece has to be carefully sculpted one by one to fit the unique shape of each specimen.”
Pearls are also making their way into the realm of men’s jewelry. The trend is fuelled by male celebrities like Harry Styles embracing traditionally “female-oriented” jewelry pieces by wearing pearls.
Georgacopoulos shared, “Historically important men have worn pearls, so the trend is coming back. By wearing pearls, men want to show to the world that they are more in touch with their softer and vulnerable side, which is great.”
Designers are infusing a more masculine touch to white Akoya pearls using chains, safety pins, and studs. KATKIM offers a modern and subtle interpretation of timeless pieces, such as safety pins that thread through the ear lobe. “I love a man in pearls. The idea has always been that pearls are only meant for women, but there are no rules,” said Kim.
Grosz of Assael also believes that pearls provide an ideal gender-fluid medium for jewelry. Imram of State Property added, “The softness of the pearl works well on men, particularly in today’s context where we are a lot more gender-fluid with style and fashion. For our men-friendly range, we opted for iridescent black pearls paired with white gold – a great balance of softness and edginess.”
Pearls can be worn in a multitude of ways. Georgacopoulos pointed to a relaxed and casual way of wearing pearls. She said, “Pearl jewelry has also become more playful without losing its classical side. Of course, there are people still wearing them as status symbols, but the younger generation combines pearls with other jewelry by layering. They prefer more adventurous and individual pieces.”
Imram concurred, saying that this kind of flexibility allows pearl jewelry to be so much more versatile. Pearls can be worn with one’s Sunday best or with a t-shirt and jeans. Rogers added that people also wear pearls to the beach, which did not happen a lot in the past. “We’ve made them relatable for younger shoppers while exciting more mature shoppers with fresh styling options,” she noted.
Although pearls are increasingly viewed as a versatile and fashionable gem, traditional connotations are still attached to the gem, according to Imram. “People have such strong impressions and opinions on pearls that it can be challenging to have the client appreciate the design for what it is. There are times when they love the pieces but have it in their mind that they are not ‘pearl people’,” he continued.
The classic pearl necklace continues to be a universally popular choice due to its enduring elegance and symbolism. Georgacopoulos explained, “It evokes a sense of purity and perfection. Even a simple pearl pendant can give you that feeling of dressing up without showing off; it is subtle yet powerful.”
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