by Lisa Klinghoffer
A simple necklace adorning a young debutante's neck, or layers of milky white strands draped down the back of a flapper—that transformative strand of pearls has been an enduring fashion staple for centuries. In the ancient world pearls were so highly valued, it's rumored that Julius Caesar invaded Britain to obtain freshwater pearls, but it wasn't until the 15th century that pearls were strung together to form the iconic badge of grace and femininity.
A symbol of affluence and purity favored by nobility, it was all the rage in 15th-century Europe to embellish clothing with pearls. Seamstresses would string them on long pieces of thread to speed up the work of the ornate adornment, and so the strand of pearls was born. Among the royal families of the 18th century, a strand of pearls was the ultimate status symbol, these highly coveted baubles continued to be accessible to the wealthy through the 19th century. Pearls were so valuable in the early 20th century that jeweler Jacques Cartier is said to have purchased his landmark store on Fifth Avenue for the price of two flawless pearl strands.
In the 1930s cultured pearls flooded the market, making them readily available to the masses. American women embraced this accessibility, making the strand of pearls a fundamental part of their wardrobes. Pearls earned their status as a fashion icon thanks to Coco Chanel's use of multiple strands in her runway shows and generations of designers have since followed suit. But today, these iridescent baubles aren't just for the ladies who lunch. Whether you're rocking a wife beater or a bit of couture, that uncomplicated strand of pearls is still the perfect way to declare your timeless style.
Coco piled them on and so did Madonna, but for centuries, just a single string of pearls has proven to be the most treasured hand-me-down of all.