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Power Pearls Unpacked

Why women in power have time and again turned to this organic gem

The 2021 inauguration of US Vice President Kamala Harris saw her wearing a South Sea pearl and diamond necklace with a chain motif. This, however, was not the first time Vice President Harris was seen wearing pearls. Throughout her campaign, Harris wore a selection of pearl necklaces, both white South Seas pearls and gray Tahitians. Pearls were a feminine, bold and stylish choice. But even more so, they were a form of power dressing, that spoke directly to the voters. Through her pearls Harris declared that she was reliable and dependable, a candidate who meant business, and who was there to get things done. Vice President Kamala Harris’ choice of jewelry was a part of her overall political message. This, more than anything, underscores the power of pearls.

Queens and Empresses in the Past - Pearls and Power

A visit to the Queen’s House, Greenwich, brings you face to face with one of Queen Elizabeth I’s most iconic portraits-the Armada portrait. This portrait was commissioned to commemorate the spectacular defeat of the Spanish Armada at the hands of the English defenders.  

Queen Elizabeth I, The Armada Portrait, Greenwich Museums 

More than a likeness of Elizabeth, this portrait is a very effective political tool, wherein the sheer abundance of pearls helps underscore the monarch’s power and prestige. A gem that was extremely rare and precious in the 16th Century, in this portrait Queen Elizabeth is not only seen wearing pearl necklaces, but there are pearls stitched onto her clothes and pinned into her hair. Meant to inspire awe and respect, the imagery has a clear message-this is a queen who is powerful and majestic. And the subtext of this power is expressed with pearls!

Cleopatra Dissolving the Pearl in Wine, National Trust Collections; Inset : Empress Theodora, Encyclopedia Britannica 

This flirtation between pearls and  women in power goes back to even earlier times. The romantic anecdote of Cleopatra dissolving a large pearl in a cup of wine while entertaining Mark Antony, just to prove her utter indifference towards her wealth, is one aspect of it. The other can be witnessed in the life story of Byzantine Empress Theodora, renowned for her intelligence, charm and beauty, whose image, resplendent in pearls, is forever immortalized in a 6th Century mosaic in Ravenna. Therefore, since the days of antiquity, women in power have always turned to pearls as a way to express their majesty and authority.

Women in the Corridors of Power and Pearls Today

It is only recently that the connection between women of power and influence and pearls has been given a name -power pearls. But what exactly are power pearls? Back in 2008 when this term was still in its infancy, journalist Germaine Greer at The Guardian described them as “pure white and large, anything from 11mm in diameter to 16mm, in a single strand.” Looking at recent world history, many women in power, including British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as well as former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, famously wore white pearl necklaces.

From left to right: Former US Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (Politico), Tahitian Pearl Stud Earrings Pearls of Joy, Tahitian Pearl Necklace Pearls of Joy, Vice President Kamala Harris (Getty Images), Former CEO Pepsi Co. Indra Nooyi (Forbes), Multicolor South Sea Pearl Necklace Pearls of Joy 

Over the years, though, the idea of “power pearls” has morphed. No longer does it solely apply to a necklace of large, gleaming, white pearls. Former US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has rarely ever been seen without her large South Sea pearls, both golden and white. Similarly, Vice President Harris is routinely seen wearing a necklace of dark, lustrous gray Tahitians.

Even in the higher echelons of the corporate world, women in power seem to favor pearls as their go to jewelry accessory. Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of Pepsi Co. often paired pearl necklaces with her outfits, in both formal and casual settings.

‘Power pearls’  today symbolize success for women, a luminous declaration that one has arrived. Nevertheless, the meaning of power pearls in the modern context contains some interesting contradictions. While it is a feminine and traditional jeweled accessory, wearing pearl necklaces, especially Tahitian and golden South Seas, is a bold, almost “look at me” fashion statement. Also, although there is an undeniable softness to pearls, pearl necklaces are also seen a talisman of strength and resilience.

US First Ladies - Pearls and Soft Power

Even so, the essential power of pearls changes with the person wearing them. Worn by US First Ladies, pearls become the emblem of soft power. Some, like Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Bush (Senior) favored faux pearls over real ones. For Jackie Kennedy, pearls added to her aura of glamorous elegance. By contrast, for Barbara Bush, they underlined her no-nonsense approach to fashion. As an

accessory, they were a practical choice Mrs. Bush and made her appear more relatable.

From left to right: Jackie Kennedy (MPTV Images/Eyevine), Barbara Bush (Official White House Portrait), Freshwater Pearl Necklace Pearls of Joy, Michelle Obama (Official White House Portrait), White South Sea Pearl Necklace Pearls of Joy

However, it was Michelle Obama who took the soft power of pearls to new heights. Her signature look, a sleeveless shift dresses paired with a two-strand white pearls necklace, spoke volumes – a fashion-forward First Lady who honored traditions. Thus, in terms of soft power, pearls represent grace and charm, and unlike the extravagance associated with diamonds, they make the wearer look reliable and approachable.

Power pearls signify success, glamor and authority. But they can also embody relatability and traditions. Worn by women in positions of power, they become totems of strength and achievement. Pearls have represented power for women since antiquity and this tradition is set to continue into the 21st century.

Featured Image: Tahitian Round South Sea Pearl Necklace, Tahitian Pearl Ayla Ring 

Reema Farooqui is a content writer who loves pearls and pearl jewelry. You can find her on her website The Culture of Pearls or on Instagram at @thecultureofpearls 

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