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Stranded

Around the neck of Nancy Pelosi and ubiquitous on runways, pearls are coming out of their velvet pouches

By PAMELA DITTMER MCKUEN
The victory that ushered Nancy Pelosi into place as first female speaker of the House made both political headlines and fashion news. On election night and many times since, she wore a strand of marble- sized, multi-colored pearls, a look copied around the world.
    After years of seclusion in jewelry boxes and velvet pouches everywhere, pearls are back in vogue. And Pelosi's necklace of gray, cream and gold Tahitian pearls embodies two emerging trends. One is a return to tradition and the elegant simplicity of a single strand. The other is a romp toward contemporary, mixing colors, lengths, stones, leather, ribbon and mesh, maybe all at once.
    "Pearls can be classic or fun and playful," says Carly Beumel, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and an apparel research consultant. "With a sheath dress or a pretty blouse with neckline details, a single strand would be classic. Several strands will be a bit sexy."
    Pelosi's not the only inspiration. Pearls are appearing on runways, red carpets and grocery store aisles. New book and photo releases refresh memories of fashion icons Princess Diana and Jacqueline Kennedy—and their pearls. Designer Vera Wang frequently
shows them with her wedding gowns.
    "Accessories are dictated by fashion," says Beumel. "We just went through a cycle of color and print and embellishment, but we're starting to go into a minimal direction again with a lot of black and more finely tailored garments. That's when accessories are more important. It's a way to personalize and pop your outfit."
Pearls are created when a foreign particle, such as a bit of shell, finds its way into the soft tissue of an oyster or mussel. The mollusk protects itself from this invader by secreting nacre, a protective crystalline substance, around it. The nacre build, layer by layer to form a pearl.
    Almost all pearls today are cultured, meaning that the particles are inserted by hand. Natural pearls form without human intervention and are extremely rare. Both cultured and natural pearls are "real" gemstones.
    Prices vary according to size, color, shape, texture, luster and thickness of the nacre. Tahitian and South Seas pearls, which tend to be larger and more colorful, are more expensive than the classic Akoya pearls, known for their pure white and cream tones.
Craig Horwitz of H. Horwitz Co. at Water Tower Place notes a keen interest in traditional styles such as single and multiple strands, earrings, perhaps with diamond accents, and pearls of South Seas and Tahitian origins.
    "Pearls can be very dressy, but also very casual," Horwitz says. "A cultured pearl stud earring can be worn for everyday just like a diamond stud."
    A current stunner is a strand of South Sea pearls that graduate from 12mm to 15 mm, with diamond rondelles between each pearl and a pavé diamond ball clasp, costing $19,000, Horwitz says.
The Horwitz collection doesn't lean toward trendy, but the 2005 White Sox World Series win is commemorated with a strand of alternating black-and-white pearls for $399.
    Iridesse, a Tiffany-founded chain of pearl emporiums, with locations in Oak Brook and Woodfield, offers an array of both traditional and modern designs. Prices range from $100 to $50,000. One bestseller is the flapper-inspired, 88-inch rope of freshwater pearls, which can be wrapped, looped or knotted, starting at $775. Inezita Gay, vice president of Iridesse, says she always travels with it and keeps one at the office in case an unexpected meeting or social function calls for a bit of sartorial flair.
    "It's the woman's equivalent of a man's necktie," Gay says.
Another favorite, which Gay calls "Twist and Shout," resembles a wreath of snowy crystals. Strands of freshwater pearls, ranging in size from 3mm to 7mm, are threaded on nearly invisible nylon filament, making them seem to float in the air. From $425, it comes in white or pastel multicolor and can be unfurled to wear with different necklines.
    Like Pelosi, Jessica Travers teams timeless with modern, although in her case, it's pearls and punk. The 20-something student and bartender on the North Side wears her classic beads with all- black garb, a military cap and combat boots. A friend calls her "Jackie O'Castro."
    "I'm not afraid to wear pearls with anything, no rules, when I feel like it," Travers says.
    "Women and pearls have the ultimate romance," says Gay. "Don't keep your pearls tucked away in a drawer. They need to be out in your life with you."

Published: December 02, 2007
Issue: December Philanthropy 07