Found  /  Explainer

Pearl Jam

In the twentieth century, the mollusk-produced gem was a must have for members of WASP gentility. In the twenty-first century, its appeal is far more inclusive.

The social meaning of pearls

It becomes easy to see that the social meanings of pearls are ever-changing. No longer just for women, pearls are modeled by and marketed to all genders. They grace the necks of those in the highest echelons of political power—previously first ladies, now senators, Supreme Court justices, and even the Vice President. What’s more, they don’t have to be “real” to have real meaning. First Lady Barbara Bush proudly wore an imitation pearl necklace, her style trademark. Cultured pearls are neither cruelty-free nor vegan friendly. Nor are they inexpensive; as an example, an eighteen-inch strand (the most popular length) of cultured pearls from Mikimoto America costs in the neighborhood of $3,500. There are, however, many brands and styles of imitation pearls, some heirloom quality, made from crystal, glass, and other substances, that are reasonably priced and cruelty-free.

Inspired by the impending 2021 inauguration of Vice President Kamala Harris, US Navy veteran Hope Aloaye used Facebook as a platform to exhort women across the country to wear pearls on inauguration day in symbolic celebration of this historic event. In an interview with Good Morning America, Aloaye explained “I equated the pearls to women (because) . . . pearls are every color, shape, size. It doesn’t matter. … I just thought that was a beautiful thing.” In December of 2020, six weeks or so before the inaugural festivities, Aloaye started the Facebook group United by Pearls, where women of all ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities post photos of themselves, their mothers, aunts, daughters, even little babies, draped in these gems.

When I asked members of United by Pearls what their pearls mean to them, I detected a notable departure from what they meant to my mother. For her, as for many well-heeled white women, pearls were a badge of inclusion (but into an exclusive space), that is, a space of privilege. Though some members of United by Pearls identified their strands with the traditional vibe of ladylike appropriateness, even conformity, others said they see these jewels as emblematic of diversity and solidarity against oppression. Indeed, wearing them constitutes a form of resistance. This interpretation actively contradicts colonial associations between pearls and rigid hierarchy, as well as late modern, WASPy, proprietary claims to exclusivity. By defiantly wearing their pearls—all colors, all shapes, real, faux, long, short, round, irregular, what have you—and by including all women across all demographics, members of United by Pearls turn that oppressive trope on its head.

Pearls are more about solidarity than distinction. Women and people of marginalized identities wear their pearls to vote, to protest, to watch contested Senate confirmation hearings, to honor departed icons, to get abortions, and generally to remind themselves that the world can be their oyster, too.