This article first appeared in the JNA November/ December 2021 issue.
Forward-moving social conventions that increasingly celebrate equality, fluidity and a higher level of freedom of expression alongside the undeniable power of social media, celebrities and influencers have given birth to a modern phenomenon: Men once again wearing pearl jewellery for diversity and style revolution.
From the maharajas of India to the elite circles of Europe and Asia, men of power have historically donned pearls as an indisputable symbol of royalty, authority and affluence.
Perhaps the most endearing proof of these state jewels was the mythical necklace of Maharaja Khande Rao Gaekwad of Baroda, made of seven rows of natural pearls that were impeccably matched in colour, luster, size and shape. While the whereabouts of this outstanding piece remains unknown today, part of the necklace appeared at Christie’s New York in April 2007 – an exceptional two-row necklace reconstituted from the original Baroda pearls. Sold for US$7.1 million dollars, it is still one the most expensive pearl necklaces ever sold at auction.
“Referred to as the Baroda pearls, each luminous strand radiated elegance, wealth and power, and would be the prized possession of Royal Gaekwars of later generations,” noted Christie’s.
Further testament to the important role of pearls in imperial coffers, a portrait of King Charles I of England wearing a large pearl drop earring was done in 1636 by Anthony Van Dyck – at a time when European aristocrats had fallen in love with pearls. It was customary to wear just one piece, rather than a pair. According to historians, Charles was wearing this earring when he was executed in 1649.
While the tradition quietly faded over the centuries, the wearing of pearls by men is once again becoming a trend in the fashion and jewellery world.
Pearls also carry a different meaning now. In 2019, British singer Harry Styles wore a single pearl earring at the Met Gala, reestablishing the beloved gem’s prominent stature among jewellery lovers. Since then, Styles has worn pearl necklaces at many high-profile events. Other influential celebrities such as Usher, Joe Jonas and Pharrell Williams, to name a few, have likewise donned pearls in concerts and other occasions – further raising the profile of pearls among a younger generation of buyers.
Daring and diverse
Men have become more adventurous when it comes to wearing jewellery, according to jeweller Matthew Harris of US-based Mateo New York. Harris, who was born in Jamaica, founded his jewellery brand in 2009.
A self-taught designer, his love of contemporary art, architecture and his adopted city of New York is evident in his creations. More than defying social standards however, men are accessorising with pearls once again because they want to and they can, shared Harris. “I do not think men set out to tackle such topics of diversity or shake up conventions,” he noted. “Men are continuously evolving. They are no longer afraid of taking risks by wearing jewellery. Maharajas and other great men of the past were always draped in pearls and as my mother would say, ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’ It is nice to see men wearing pearls again.”
Mateo has a rich collection of pearl jewellery pieces, among them a strand of freshwater pearls in 14-karat gold for men. Other fine pearl jewellery pieces in both classic and contemporary designs featuring baroque pearls, and a combination of pearls and black enamel or mother-of-pearl could also be worn by men eager and willing to display their fashionable side.
With pearl jewellery experiencing an aesthetic revamp, buyers have at their disposal an eclectic choice of designs such as chain necklaces, single dangling baroque pearl earrings, oversized cocktail rings, leather bracelets adorned with black Tahitian pearls as well as modern pieces with golden South Sea, Akoya or freshwater pearls.
The movement is greatly amplified by social media platforms where influencers constantly post photos and videos of the latest trends, including on-trend pearl jewellery pieces.
While the Western world has Styles and other celebrities to emulate, South Korea’s hugely successful boy band BTS is capturing attention in Asia and the world over for its members’ unique, avant-garde appeal.
Further fueling the so-called “masc-pearl trend,” V – one of the group’s seven members – is often seen wearing pearls such as a single drop earring or a strand of pearls. He has also been photographed wearing a pearl-embellished sweater. With BTS having more than 50 million followers on Instagram, it is safe to say that the group is a trendsetter, thanks to its massive clout among worldwide fans.
Even before these young male celebrities started wearing pearls publicly, fashion magazines would occasionally spot famous men in pearls. In 2005, Hollywood actor Pierce Brosnan, best known for playing James Bond in movies, appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair sporting a leather cord necklace adorned with a Tahitian pearl pendant.
Pearl jewellery specialist Mikimoto has teamed up with Japanese fashion label Comme des Garçons in March this year to come up a collection that celebrates the universal allure of pearls, especially as a jewellery option for men.
The Mikimoto x Comme des Garçons project seamlessly blends Mikimoto’s pearl expertise with the fashion brand’s edgy, radical designs. The “genderless” capsule collection consists of single- or double-row necklaces combining sterling silver chains and Akoya or South Sea pearls. Comme des Garçons was founded in the 1970s by celebrated designer Rei Kawakubo.
Some of the pieces make use of the otherwise mundane safety pin in silver as a centrepiece that connects a string of pristine Akoya pearls together. Another Akoya pearl strand uses silver safety pins in varying sizes as pendants.
“This collaboration began with an innovative vision by Rei Kawakubo to adorn men in pearls,” revealed Mikimoto. “We believe this will generate a whole new wave of trends and opportunities for Mikimoto. In an era when pre-existing values are rapidly evolving, we hope to further promote the beauty and potential of pearls.”
Apart from baroque and small round freshwater pearls, Mateo recently stepped out of its comfort zone by using other pearl options in its latest collection, revealed Harris. “I adore all pearls as they are my birthstone and I have a deep connection and love for them,” he noted. “They are the only precious gems formed underwater and that makes them magical and mystical. I often gravitate towards classic round pearls and unique baroque pearls but for our upcoming men’s collection, we added exotic and beautiful black Tahitian pearls.”
Other leading pearl jewellers have likewise come up with unisex pieces or special collections for men. Jewelmer’s Pearl of Hope bracelet, which is made of a braided leather strap with a single golden South Sea pearl in the middle, is an androgynous piece that can be worn on many different occasions. The pearl specialist also offers cufflinks adorned with golden South Sea pearls. Canada-based contemporary jeweller Romeo J meanwhile has an eclectic collection of genderless bracelets designed with Tahitian pearls and leathers, among other materials.
David Yurman, on the other hand, offers a pearl necklace interspersed with a chain that gives the piece a more masculine appeal while baroque pearls – with their raw and unpredictable vibe – are the stars of men’s jewellery pieces by Completedworks and Alighieri.
With more companies supporting the growing trend of pearls for men, other jewellers are expected to take a second look at pearls as a sophisticated and more sustainable choice when designing their next men’s collection. Harris explained, “The sustainable and ecological storytelling of pearls will attract new clients. Today’s customers are very intelligent and curious. They want to make an intellectual purchase, one where they are not doing more harm to the environment.”