“A woman needs ropes and ropes of pearls.” – Coco Chanel
As a child, I believed pearls made the lady.
I was convinced that upon securing that complicated golden clasp (without getting my hair stuck) I would be transformed into a poised, elegant, and classy young woman. It would separate me from others as a good girl of good standing, someone who knew how to say the right thing, dress appropriately, and be courteous and polite. That opalescent shine around my neck was a sign to all exactly who and what I was before I ever opened my mouth.
Pearls would show the world that I was as elegant as Grace Kelly, charming as Audrey Hepburn, fearless as Queen Elizabeth, and clever as Nancy Drew. They were my noose around the neck of modernity; slowing it down with a well-timed reminder that being a lady never goes out of style.
Every Christmas I’d dig into the ornament boxes and pull out the yards of plastic pearl garlands, wrap them around myself and host elaborate tea parties with the dogs and cats (each wearing their own strands). On the miraculous Christmas Eve, the only night I was allowed to break out my black velvet dress and shiny patent leather Mary Janes, I’d beg my mother to try on her pearls. I desperately wanted to be a big girl, and to this day I’ll never forget the year they gave me my own tiny set of seed pearls. My hot little hands never left that necklace, grasping the pearls tightly in my fists feeling them warm to my skin; an impish grin doing little to match the elegance of my outfit. After that night they were relinquished back into the trusted hands of my mother to spend the year recessed on a flat bed of velvet secure in her jewelry box, just waiting for another special occasion.
“A natural pearl begins its life as a foreign object, such as a parasite or piece of shell that accidentally lodges itself in an oyster’s soft inner body where it cannot be expelled.”
—A History of Pearls
The next time they saw daylight was the darkest day of my childhood. One bright October day I was back in a black velvet dress, fidgeting against the hard pews of the church, clutching my pearls as they carried in my grandmother’s casket. To the world around me—family and mourners alike—I looked as pretty as a picture with my ginger curls, pearls and muffler; a perfect legacy of my grandmother and namesake. There was little sign of the confused grief running rampant inside my child body, none of the fear of seeing the adults in my life cry, nor turmoil of my first glimpse of death. The pearls resting delicately against my collarbones projected a facade of poise and togetherness. They were the hardened pearlescence over a foreign and unfamiliar irritant, burying it deep and covering it with something distractingly pretty. When my mother took off my pearls that night and laid them to rest in velvet, she placed my inheritance beside it, my grandmother’s diamond engagement ring, entombing them both into the dark. For many years thereafter I’d slip into my mother’s room and slide open the walnut drawer to visit them, to see them come alive as the light first reached the darkness and be reminded of their strength.
“Pearls are always appropriate.” – Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
As any teenager can attest, there’s never a time in your life when you’re more of a walking dichotomy. Amidst the drama, hormones, and hell of high school every day finds you in various forms of a disaster. Everyone is trying to simultaneously fit in and stand out from the crowd, while projecting a carefully chosen persona that shields their inner horror show. In a normal school this is acted out through elaborate and carefully styled outfits; at a Catholic school where the only control over your wardrobe is whether you do or don’t wear the school sweater, the stakes are far more nuanced. Your few allotted accessories and makeup are the extent of which you can externally express yourself. For most girls, this consisted in dime-a-dozen jewelry that would rot your ears, velvet chokers, ball chain necklaces, and all the shiny lip gloss you could get stuck in your hair. These accouterments were vital components of the delicate social hierarchy of fertile adolescents held back by the rigidity of a millennia of dogma.
Never overly comfortable amidst my peers I had little desire to look like them, which subsequently made me less able to fit in alongside them. Instead of trends I sought out the timeless; I forwent the identical hot-for-a-second dresses for school dances for full-length gowns—my first formal was a strapless black floor-length dress with a tiny train, white gloves, and my beloved pearls, à la “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” It was fabulous, formal, and wildly out of place. Instead of projecting the vision of a cultured young lady, it painted me as unapproachable, stuck-up, and better suited for a night out with Bing Crosby than a teenage boy.
That night I stood at the edge of the gym as Britney Spears hit us one more time, with my pearls a demarcation line between myself and my peers, and the loneliness was admittedly killing me. I could cling to the dictum of a bygone era that had little relevancy; antiquated notions of being a lady that resonated within me or I could give in, take my hair out of a chignon and have a little fun. I just had to let my inner mess shine through to the outside and let go of all that had kept me standing tall. Awash in the emotional black hole of being a 14-year-old girl, understanding quantum physics would’ve been easier than relinquishing my carefully constructed persona. Adjusting my pearls I excused myself to the drinks table to pitch editorial ideas to a teacher. I’d chosen sides.
“As coal pressured into pearls by our weighty existence. Beauty that arose out of pain.” —Suzanne Collins, Catching Fire
Life—and pearls—are rarely so clean cut or clear shades of white and black. There are many hues honed by time, forged in the dark, shaping something that does not fit into that time and place into something unique and beautiful. Every necklace is comprised of countless pearls that grow in different oysters from various irritants, and evolve into their own story. As the pearls are harvested, jewelers shine and select those that most closely match to combine into a single strand; a cohesive narrative. Our lives are spent cherry-picking our own stories; putting them together to tell the tale we want the world to see. We replace the dirty life-shaping instances that set us on our evolutionary path for the glossy end result; the persona instead of the person; the gleaming strand of pearls in a velvet box instead of the grit in the oyster. To tell the true tale of who we are and how we came to be requires us to be vulnerable, to give the world our misshapen messy selves, the rough parts lost in the murky waters, and say, “Take me as I am, not as who I want to be.” It demands a depth of maturity beyond the poise and decorum of being a “proper lady” to embrace the terrifying uncertain reality of the blood, sweat, and tears of being a woman.
“I feel undressed if I don’t have my pearls on. My pearls are my security blanket.” – Lady Sarah Churchill
My pearls have been my armor, my backbone of steel precariously strung on fine silken thread. At 16, my parents gave me a strand of pearls becoming for my age. Tightly strung, the pearls weren’t perfectly round, but instead were two pearls stuck together, each pulling and growing in opposite directions. I wore them every day–with my school uniform, out with friends, to dances, and to lie around the house. Long strands of red hair tangled around them and the oil from my skin seeped inside; I forgot to take them off when showering, and slept in them nightly. Their constant weight was always with me; something to cling to and cower from the world at large. Weeks before my 21st birthday, the day I boarded a jet to England for a semester, my first foreign foray and big adventure, my mother handed me another velvet box. Inside were pearl earrings with tiny diamonds attached. The pearls were bright and delicate, the diamonds hard and cold, both begotten from something crude. I’d need both for what was ahead—the glittery façade, the softness to be flexible, the strength to persevere, wrapped in the gift of my mother’s love. I secured them in my ears as I took off and counted on them to see me through the unknown.
“To love or have loved, that is enough. Ask nothing further. There is no other pearl to be found in the dark folds of life.” – Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
These days my pearls are a touchstone; they are slipped on for luck and a comforting embrace. They’re the strength I need to get through difficult presentations and the coat of armor to hide behind when I’m insecure. When I coif my hair, put on a fine dress, and paint myself pretty, I fasten my Oxford pearls and slip a strand over my head, and I see the past. There I am as a child wrapped in plastic pearls playing at being prim and proper with a tea set; there’s a glimpse of my long gone grandmother in a portrait at my age, and the comfort and support of a lifetime of my mother’s love. I open my own jewelry box and see a drawer of the past waiting to become my future; the engagement ring waiting to one day bedeck my finger, and the ropes of pearls that gave me strength to choose my own story. And one day, I will hand them both down to my own daughters or nieces.
At the end of the night, I unclasp my pearls, shake out my hair, and wipe off my face. The outward appearance of a lady slips away, leaving me looking more like the vulnerable mess I’d spent my youth desperately hiding. My battle armor is removed, but its strength and comfort, after years of hanging around my neck, has been absorbed. The chaos of the woman has forged the lady within.