Memories and Pearls: An Analysis of My Grandmother’s Necklace

The starting point for this analysis is Mida and Kim’s reference to the way Sherlock Holmes would understand an item of clothing. More specifically, their description of how the appearance of an object can tell a story about the person who wore it (11). Furthermore, a piece of clothing, as described by Mida and Kim, may contain personal and cultural narratives (11) that can be discovered by analysing the item. With this understanding in mind, I decided to think about my family’s own history through pieces that were passed on from my grandparents to me. I chose to examine my grandmother’s pearl necklace, inspired by Mida and Kim’s definition of a dress detective: the one who looks and interprets clues from the garment as a way of understanding its history and relationship with the wearer and its period (11).

My grandmother’s pearl necklace. Photo by Valentina Rosa.

My father lost his father when he was just a young boy. After that, he had to take care of his mother, who died when I was six years old. I don’t remember her, but ever since I was little, my father has been telling me histories of our family and my origins, providing me with memories of them through his own recollection.

My father’s family was poor, experiencing difficulties in life and trying to overcome them by working hard and staying together. His mother, a woman of German origins born in Brazil, was a simple person who didn’t own fancy items of clothing. The things that she owned, however, were cared for and passed on to me, her only granddaughter, as beautiful tokens of the women she was. One of these items is this pearl necklace, her most cherished piece. The use of pearls, just like any other garment, is a historical and cultural construction (Jobling 136), and here I will try to understand my grandmother’s necklace not only by analysing the item itself but by thinking about the history surrounding it.

My grandmother’s pearl necklace. Photo by Valentina Rosa.

It is interesting to notice that, as referred by Chadour-Sampson and Bari, the use of jewellery echoes historical moments and economic conditions (114). History shows that people have always been fascinated with adornments and how they can decorate the body. In the Ancient World, for example, distinct cultural groups developed their own styles on how to use jewellery, making use of simple beads, created from seeds, berries and shells (Philips 7). With time, people began to create their adornments using metals and gems, with jewellery made by the Byzantine Empire, in the 6th century, showing the presence of pearls in the created pieces (Philips 40).

During the Roman Empire, pearls were perceived as “attractive and highly fashionable” (Chadour-Sampson and Bari 39), being the most special and expensive jewel. Wealthy women from that time, including Cleopatra, were seen wearing pearls that would cost the same as a large state. Their desire for pearls was even bigger due to the “dangerous circumstances in which they were recovered from the sea by fishermen who risked their lives – and occasionally died – to secure them” (Chadour-Sampson and Bari 39). In other words, pearls were adored as a result of the way they were produced and consumed (Jobling 137). It is possible to understand, then, that a sign was attributed to the item. Pearls were associated with a cultural notion of wealth, creating a sign that made it possible to judge how rich someone was by the number of pearls they wore (Jobling 135). The fascination with pearls kept growing, and during the Renaissance, the gem was favoured and used more than any other piece of jewellery (Mackrell 60).

As referenced by Bari and Lam, the symbolic meaning of the pearl reached its peak in the reign of Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603), since she was always covered with pearls, wearing them more than any other gem, having some even sewn onto her garments (139). According to the authors, it was then that the pearls became, even more, a symbol of “extreme power and wealth” (139). During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, the usage of pearls was at its height, since the Catholic Church was trying to combat the Protestant Reformation by showing its power through extravagances, with rulers wearing an enormous number of jewels (Bali and Lam 143). Years after, royalty such Queen Alexandra of England (1844-1925), would still wear necklaces with diamonds or rows of pearls.

Miniature portrait of Queen Alexandra wearing rows of pearls, England, c.1901-10, by William and Daniel Downey, Royal Collection, in Chadour-Sampson and Bari (114).

Due to the high demand, the fishing for natural pearls was one of the main sources of income in the Gulf until around the 1930s (Chadour-Sampson and Bari 114). Since my grandmother was born in 1920, she lived during this period when things were very different, with pearls being seen as an equivalent to the amount of money one had. At the time, people were wearing ropes of pearls not because of its style, but for their social circle (Chadour-Sampson and Bari 120).

Pearls are still worn by a wide variety of women to this day, but there was a shift in the way they are perceived,  making it more acceptable to wear fake ones. When my grandmother was in her teenage years, Coco Chanel helped change the idea that only privileged people could wear pearls, making it “an affordable delight to all women” (Smith 136). This was due to her believe that jewellery was not made to show how rich a person was (Chadour-Sampson and Bari 126). Instead, she believed that every woman should own more than one pearl necklace, not mattering how real or fake they were (Smith 136). Her vision helped lead to change, with imitation and costume jewels being equally worn by celebrities and royals (Chadour-Sampson and Bari 114).

Even with Chanel’s help in democratizing the use of pearls, they continue to be perceived as a symbol of wealth and classiness. As pointed out by Smith, “South Sea pearls are still a status symbol among socialites” (137). In this sense, wearing pearls can be understood as an example of Mida and Kim’s definition of how an item may carry a social message (Mida and Kim 16). It is my understanding that everyone can wear pearls, but there will always be an extra symbol of glamour and status when someone is seen wearing it. My reflection is based on the idea that the sign associated with the image of a women wearing pearls, real or not, did not change. What changed was the sign associated with fake pearls, that began to be accepted by the population.

Coco Chanel in 1938 wearing pearls, in Chadour-Sampson and Bari (129).

It is important to think about the time when my grandmother would have worn her necklace. I believe that she would have started wearing it in the middle of the twentieth century, when, in a very different manner, the nobility would attend events wearing extravagant jewels, mostly pearls and diamonds (Chadour-Sampson and Bari 115). By looking at my grandmother’s item, it is immediately possible to notice the contrast between it and the ones the Royals were wearing at the time since hers was not white and had paintings on it, giving it a very fake appearance, the opposite of the ones that were considered to be fancy. But it is an object that was loved by its owner, who proudly wore it when she wanted to look classy. For her, it didn’t matter how far from a real pearl necklace this one was.

The piece is made of fake creamy coloured plastic pearls, starting with small ones, that grow in size on both sides, meeting in the middle with one big pearl. Each pearl was hand-painted with golden stripes and flowers, some blue, yellow and white and others pink. By analysing it, one can see that demanding work and a great amount of time was disposed to paint each pearl, making it a one of a kind piece.

The details on the pearls. Photo by Valentina Rosa.

My grandmother wore this necklace to every event she attended, and as one can imagine, the item began to show signs of usage, with its clasp breaking. This finding corroborates with Mida and Kim’s definition of how an item is subjected to the way its owner interacts with it, carrying marks and strains of wear (16). Furthermore, it is possible to notice that the usage that my grandmother did of this necklace corroborates with Chanel’s idea of the objective of wearing pearls: to adorn the body and not as a sign of wealth (Chadour-Sampson and Bari 126).

By analysing the necklace now, I believe that one pearl may have been lost when the clasp broke, making it uneven on one side and decentralising the big central pearl. This did not stop my grandmother from wearing it: she fixed it by giving it a home-made finishing. A new clasp was added, and several tiny knots were made so that the necklace wouldn’t fall apart a second time. Now, twenty years have passed, and the new clasp is rusty and looks very fragile, making the item look even farther away from the usual fancy white pearl necklace.

Signs of usage in the broken clasp, being possible to see how my grandmother mended it. Photo by Valentina Rosa.

The uneven sides because of the missing pearl. Photo by Valentina Rosa.

By thinking about this necklace through my grandmother’s history, it is possible to comprehend Kopytoff’s understanding of how a thing may have its own biography since it came from a person, a time, and a culture (66). Furthermore, its use also changed with its age (67), not being worn as a necklace anymore, but living on as a token, a memory. I can’t help but wonder how different its biography would be if some other person had bought it. Would it have lived for such a long time? Would it have been passed on from grandmother to son and then to granddaughter? It is truly accurate than that the cultural biography of the item is only possible from a specific perspective of it (Kopytoff 68).

Through Kopytoff’s understanding of commodities and their value (68), I began to think about how these notions can be applied to the analysis of my grandmother’s necklace. I imagine that not every woman would want to buy it, as it is not similar to real pearls and it has details that may be perceived as tacky or out of style. In contrast, we can again think about the types of pearls that were being worn by people at the time that she would have worn hers. As referred by Chadour-Sampson and Bari, after the second war, actresses like Lauren Bacall, Doris Day and Grace Kelly were seen wearing pearl necklaces with rows of pearls. Furthermore, Dior’s ‘New Look’ had presented mannequins wearing pearls in abundance (131).

The history surrounding pearls leads me to believe that what differentiates my grandmother’s necklace from the ones worn around the same time, is the fact that someone could tell immediately that hers was fake, while everyone else was wearing imitations that resembled real ones. Even Dior’s collection contained mostly imitations of pearls (Chadour-Sampson and Bari 131), showing that real and fake pearls were perceived the same way at the time. I believe this was due only because the imitations were so well made that people couldn’t know just by looking at a woman how real her pearls were.

From left to right, Marilyn Monroe (1954), Jackie Kennedy (1962) and Elizabeth Taylor (1973), in Chadour-Sampson and Bari (132, 133, 135). All of them wearing white pearls and corroborating with my idea of how it is impossible to tell if they are real or not just by looking at them.

It is important to think about the other type of value that this necklace may have: the one that it carries due to its biography, the one that my grandmother gave to it by wearing it so many times. If I had to, I would pay an enormous amount of money for this necklace, not due to its physical characteristics, but because of its biography, something that is only important to my family and me. I believe that my grandmother, the owner, was the one to give this necklace identity: she gave it a meaning, a life, a biography. In addition, Wilson presented a concept regarding the interaction between clothing items, in this case, jewellery, and the body: the item is what makes “the body culturally visible” and at the same time, only by being worn by the body, the item is complete (376). In other words, the necklace may have helped style her outfit, but only by being worn by her, it received an identity and a meaning.

The necklace has not been worn since my grandmother passed away twenty years ago. Maybe because it does not fit my style, or perhaps it became too heavy to be worn, due to the amount of meaning that it carries. Now that I’m taking the time to examine it, I wonder how many events, people, happy and sad moments this necklace must have witnessed. How many times must she have danced, laughed and smiled wearing it? For twenty years this necklace has been stored in a brown box, in my washroom, sitting heavily with its memories. Now it is right in front of me, staring back and revealing several details that I have never noticed before.

This analysis of my grandmother’s necklace leads me to realize how accurate Mida and Kim were when stating that artefacts are unique, carrying a part of the wearer within it (11). In this sense, her own personality and history were transcribed into the necklace, that now has its own biography and value to my family. The item is today much more than a pearl necklace since it carries memories that turned it into something bigger.


Works Cited

Bari, Hubert, David Lam, and Museum of Islamic Art (Dawḥah, Qatar). Pearls. Skira, 2009.

Chadour-Sampson, Anna B., and Hubert Bari. Pearls. V&A Publishing, 2013.

Jobling, Paul, “Roland Barthes: Semiology and the Rhetorical Codes of Fashion,” in Thinking Through Fashion, pp.  132-148.

Kopytoff, Igor. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” The Social Life of Things:    Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Ed. Arjun Appadurai. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.                64-91. Print.

Mackrell, Alice. Art and Fashion. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 2005.

Mida, Ingrid and Alexandra Kim. The Dress Detective. London, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2015. Print.

Phillips, Clare. Jewelry: From Antiquity to the Present. Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Smith, Nancy MacDonell. The Classic Ten: The true story of the little black dress and nine other fashion favorites.    Penguin, 2003.

Wilson, Elizabeth. “Magic Fashion.” Fashion Theory, vol. 8, no. 4, 2004, pp. 375-385.

2 thoughts on “Memories and Pearls: An Analysis of My Grandmother’s Necklace”

  1. Valentina I loved your ability to be self reflexive in this post. I only inherited my late grandmother’s knitting needles when she passed, as she didn’t have any heirlooms to pass down, but I absolutely loved the needles as I am a knitter. I would love to know more about the way that the pearls were painted on your grandmothers necklace. Is the way that they are painted tied in any way to art movements in design and decor at the time it would have been creative? Do you think that there might be cultural ties between the painting on the pearls and your family’s background?

    1. Thank you for the comment, Alysia! I agree with you that knowing more about the specifics of the pearls would enrich the understanding of the necklace and the way she perceived it. It is a shame that I didn’t know her to ask more about it! I really appreciate your suggestion of researching to see if there was a link between it and art movements of the time! Thank you!

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