You don't need oysters for pearls, girls

Once the province of Sloanes and royals, the simple sea gem now has cool, catwalk cachet
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The Independent Online
Diamonds are flashy, rubies can be vulgar. But a string of pearls is an enduring symbol of perfect taste and a certain understated English elegance. Grace Kelly, queen of refined dressing, made them as much a part of her look as the handbag that Hermes named after her. In the Twenties, they were the only way to accessorise the sporty Chanel suit. They survived the Second World War and the vicissitudes of fashion in the decades that followed - until, that is, the tasteless Eigh-ties. Appropriated by screeching Sloane Rangers, who wore them indiscriminately with anything from upturned shirt collars to billowing ball-gowns, they became a fashion no-no for everyone else. And Margaret Thatcher, who once referred to her pearls as "lucky", was never seen without them. The demise of the pearl seemed absolute. But now the twinset and elegant dressing have returned to catwalks from Paris to New York, and pearls are set for (yet another) revival.

Mikimoto, famous for its cultured pearls, is fuelling the boom. The jewellery company that is Japan's answer to Asprey opened its first London store in New Bond Street last week. Ever since Kokichi Mikimoto, the company's founder, had the foresight to produce the world's first cultured pearl in 1893, Mikimoto has been renowned for the quality of its pearls. Members of the Royal family snap up their supplies here, as does Mick Jagger for Jerry and his daughter Jade. Ten years in the making, they don't come cheap. A necklace made of the highest quality South Sea Island pearls held together by a diamond clasp, are closer to the price of a new car.

Because of their value, pearls were traditionally associated with royalty and the upper classes. The ostenatious Elizabeth I adored them and even wore them in her red hair and one of Queen Victoria's favourite love gifts from her darling Albert was an Elizabethan-style heart-shaped brooch surmounted by a crown of four freshwater pearls. Signifying innocence, purity and perfection, jewellers had been weaving pearls into emblems of love long before Albert and Victoria were paramours. But there is also a black pearl, the rarest and most valuable of all, whose existence delighted Renaissance jewellers as well as Rubens who, in Venus before a Mirror, shows the goddess with both, symbolising the dark, as well as the light, side of love.

Today the magical and metaphorical significance of the pearl is largely forotten. Fat faux pearls are as much in demand as a restrained single strand of the real thing and the rich, the famous and the fashion-conscious are all buying them. At Vivienne Westwood's Conduit Street shop in London's West End, the pearl chokers and earrings she has been selling since her mini crini collection in 1985 are selling better than ever. Three-strand chokers with trademark orb pendants go for pounds 300. And they are not even real but, like most faux pearls, are made - quite convincingly - from plastic. Meanwhile, at costume jewellers Butler & Wilson, lattice faux pearl chokers are this season's bestseller at pounds 58 a piece, while the likes of Demi Moore, Cher, Iman and Zsa Zsa Gabor are queuing up for the medieval-style shirt cuffs (pounds 875) and chokers (pounds 995) woven out of seed and large, irregular baroque pearls by Californian gemologist Ezmiralda Gordon.

But if you want to join this illustrious string of pearl wearers and are willing to eschew an authenticity certificate or a designer label, a department store should have what you're looking for. The best are by Spanish company Majorica, with prices starting at a more affordable pounds 15. Majorica makes what it calls "organic" pearls by a process involving, not oysters or plastic, but fish. Scales from an assortment of fish are used to coat the core of the "pearl". After several coatings, the pearl is polished and then dipped into the fish-scale mixture again. With prices starting at pounds 15, it's farewell, louche diamonds and rude rubies. A string of pearls is the Nineties accessory you dare not be without.

Pearls of wisdom

When investing in a pearl necklace or earrings, you should look out for colour, shape and size. Distinctive colour, whether pink, white, silver or black, is proof of high quality. They should also be deeply lustrous. Japanese cultured pearls vary between 2mm and 10mm; pearls over 9mm are rare and usually come from the South Seas, where they are cultivated up to 15mm. Flaws on a pearl are a sign that it is genuine, but the cleaner the pearl, the better the quality.

Vivienne Westwood pearls available from World's End, Kings Road, SW10; Liberty, Regent Street, W1; Smith & Westwood, Clayton Square, Liverpool; Chanel, 19-21 Old Bond Street, W1; Mikimoto, 179 New Bond Street, W1; Majorica Pearls, available from Selfridges, House of Fraser, Allders, Ernest Jones, Northern Goldsmiths and independent retailers nationwide; Manguette, 20a Kensington Church Street, London W8; inquiries, 0171 937 2897; Butler & Wilson faux pearls available from 189 Fulham Road, London SW3 and 20 South Molton Street, London W1 and from Selfridges and leading department stores. For information on where to get your pearls re-strung, call the Jewellery Quarter Discovery Centre on 0121 554 3598.