Wedding: Pearls of Wisdom

Whether they come in the form of a single-strand necklace or drop earrings, in hues of soft white or subtle pink, pearls make the perfect wedding-day accessory

Right before my sister’s wedding day three years ago, my mom gave her a graduated, 16-inch strand of round, creamy white pearls that she’d received from her future mother-in-law when she was a bride-to-be in the 1960s. The strand is pure Grace Kelly. It was a perfect complement to the strapless, white Carolina Herrera dress my sister wore on her wedding day — both are simple, tailored and classic.

Right before my sister’s wedding day three years ago, my mom gave her a graduated, 16-inch strand of round, creamy white pearls that she’d received from her future mother-in- law when she was a bride-to-be in the 1960s. The strand is pure Grace Kelly. It was a perfect complement to the strapless, white Carolina Herrera dress my sister wore on her wedding day — both are simple, tailored and classic.

Grace Kelly is just one of many style icons in the pearl lexicon — there’s Queen Elizabeth, who draped herself in pearls from hem to hairline, and Coco Chanel, who piled on ropes of them for every occasion. Still, Kelly remains the icon of choice for the walk down the aisle. Funkier designs may be tempting options for the rehearsal dinner or honeymoon, but a single strand or pendant necklace continues to be what most brides wear on their wedding day.

What to Wear

Inezita Gay, vice president of product development and pearl acquisition for Iridesse, a retailer of pearls with a store in King of Prussia, knows that pearls stand for much more than prettiness and purity. In the days before people devised techniques for cutting, faceting and polishing, diamonds and rubies were just dusty pebbles. Meanwhile, people were pulling pearls out of mollusk shells and marveling at their natural beauty.

The ancient Greeks believed the pearl to bring contentment and prosperity to newlyweds. Ancient Hindu writings referred to the pearl as a symbol of love and purity, while in Islamic traditions, pearls are regarded as gifts of paradise — everything you want on your Big Day.

If you’ve decided that your wedding-day jewelry has got to be pearls, you have some hunting to do. South Sea, freshwater, Akoya and Tahitian are the four main families of pearls. Nearly all are cultured; you’ll be hard-pressed to find any natural pearls in stores today. South Sea and Tahitian pearls are the largest. Some South Sea pearls, the rarest type, are known for their satiny, golden hues — Patrick Champalou, boutique director at Cartier in King of Prussia, calls these “champagne pearls.” Tahitian pearls come in cooler shades of black, green and silvery gray. Akoya are smaller and are famous for their bright whites. Freshwater pearls have the widest array of colors, including yellow, orange, pink, purple and metallic.

There’s no shortage of designs for brides who want more choices than choker versus opera-length. Designers have taken pearls out of their classic role, making necklaces that alternate pearls with fancy-cut colored stones like peridot and citrine, or with gemstones such as sapphires and diamonds. “There are so many styles of pearl jewelry today,” says Judith McNelis, co-owner of McNelis & Sherry Fine Jewelers in Haddonfield. “There’s something for each type of bride. Someone can be a real individual and find something that works.”

McNelis carries extensions by Cassis that can be customized to transform a simple strand into a more interesting necklace, by screwing the extension between two of the pearls. They come in designs such as a blue topaz pendant and a white- or yellow-gold pendant set with diamonds. At Cartier, Champalou has sold brides a wide variety of pearl necklaces — one bride bought an elaborate collar made of 18K yellow gold and champagne pearls. Another chose a simple chain with a Tahitian pearl drop crowned by a circle of diamonds. Ray Raby, group director of the Philadelphia market for Tiffany & Co., says strands are as popular as diamonds for a groom’s gift to his bride. And when it comes to mixing pearls with stones, he notes that brides-to-be choose pieces such as the Aria necklace, which alternates diamond clusters with pearls.

Choosing Your Pearls

The first question Champalou asks a bride who’s looking for pearl jewelry is, what does your dress look like? “If it’s a plain Vera Wang gown, you can do more of a design,” he says. “If it’s a gown with detail and beading, maybe you just want a strand.” If it’s decorated with seed pearls, you may want a graduated strand of smaller pearls — something simpler and more antique-looking. McNelis agrees that the dress is key. She also advises buying with an eye on the long term. “You’ll want to buy the longest length you’ll ever need,” she says. “You can always shorten them with a nice pearl pin, but you can never add to them.” It’s too hard to find pearls that will match in color and size, especially after the pearls have aged a few years.

When a groom comes into Tiffany & Co. to pick out a strand for his fiancee, sales associates ask what length necklace she usually wears, whether she prefers white or gold metals (in regard to the clasp) and what her dress looks like. “That’s usually when we get the deer-in-headlights look,” says Raby. He agrees that erring on the long side is best. “I’ve seen brides clip the necklace so some of the pearls spill down their back,” he says. “That can look stunning.”

Gay suggests spending time in her shop’s Pearl Bar, where consultants pull strands arranged by family, color and size from apothecary-style drawers. Bring a swatch of your wedding dress, and have an idea of how you’ll wear your hair: “Do what you’d do when you’re choosing makeup,” she says. “Play with them, see why one’s good for your complexion compared to the next.”

The whites come in a wide range of shades, including rosy, silvery and creamy tones. “If someone has a reddish complexion, she shouldn’t wear pink pearls,” says Betty Fitoussi, a buyer of jewels and pearls for Jack Kellmer Co. in Haverford. In general, gold tones work best on blondes and on women with olive complexions.

Fitoussi suggests starting with budget. “How much money do you want to spend?” she asks. “There are a wide variety of prices, sizes and colors.” A strand of golden, perfectly matched South Sea pearls commands a lofty price. So does a strand of Akoya pearls with gorgeous luster. At Iridesse, South Sea strands range from $2,250 to $35,575, depending on the shape and circumference of the pearls. In comparison, freshwater strands start at $150.

Choice Pearls

As every bride-to-be knows by the time she’s thinking about bridal jewelry, diamonds have a universal grading system. Pearls have no such system, though reputable jewelers will provide a certificate confirming that the pearls were analyzed by a gemologist. Iridesse grades its strands based on seven virtues: matching, size, color, luster, nacre quality (the crystalline tissue produced by the mollusk to create the pearl), shape and surface quality. Tiffany & Co. pays special attention to luster and orient (“the little flashes of color,” says Raby). Champalou sums it up this way: “A good pearl you can almost see your [reflection] in — the bead has stayed in the oyster shell long enough for it to develop more nacre. That means there’s better luster, and that’s what makes it beautiful.” Better-quality pearls are heavier because they have thicker nacre: A strand of South Sea pearls has more heft than a strand of freshwater pearls.

Gay encourages mixing and matching types of pearls. Even if, as my sister did, you’re getting the family pearls, you may want to find earrings that set off the necklace and that express your personality. Old or new, pearls are a good choice for a day when you want yourself, not your jewelry, to be the center of attention. “Pearls have a way of pushing the woman forward,” says Gay. “You’re not focused on a giant gold necklace or on gems refracting light. Pearls really bring out your inner glow.”