Why I Wear My Pearls to Bed (and Why You Should Too)
Marilyn Monroe, Pearls; Bert Stern (American, 1929–2013); gelatin silver print
My first string of pearls was given to me by my husband, long before I knew he would make me his wife-- back when he was but a pimply boy and I, a greasy-haired girl. It was only the third occasion we’d spent any time together outside of school, my second invitation to dinner at his home (at his mother’s request), and the first occasion we found ourselves alone together in his room. I sat on the floor; he on his bed-- the door open to the rest of the household. We talked excitedly, nervously-- sharing the complete details of our short lives in a few fleet hours.
Years later, we find ourselves seated in comfortable silence, with comfortable contact, and know everything there is to know about one another-- everything to say has been said, except for the events and musings of the day, which we sometimes choose to keep to ourselves. I much prefer the mature satisfaction of our married relationship to the initial delirium of our flurried adolescent infatuation. But that evening long ago, we talked until our voices grew horse and the time for me to go was made evident by an impatiently cleared throat and the pacing of his stepfather on the hardwood at the bottom of the stairs.
As I readied myself to leave, Luis crossed the room and started rummaging in his desk. From deep within, he pulled out a threadbare velvet box of a sapphire hue and handed it to me. The box was heavy, and something wreathed inside... I was intrigued, but hesitant.
“Open it. I want you to have it. Ruth told me to give it to someone special.” There was a pause, “You are very special.”
I knew from the box alone that this was a gift of jewelry, and that whatever was inside was very old and significant.
I had learned earlier that night that Ruth was his grandmother’s cousin and longtime roommate. She had been widowed tragically young and, ever-faithful to her deceased husband, had chose never to remarry. Ruth never had children of her own though she had tried desperately to conceive during her short marriage. She loved Granny Fran’s children and their children, and and was doting godmother to all. As cultural benefactress to the family, she refined their upbringing with trips to museums, gardens, libraries, and plays... I would later be told that Ruth’s pearls had been her mother’s who had died when she was just a child. They were a lone keepsake.
I opened the box. Creamy pearls on buttery satin. Swollen and weighty, lustrous and warm. I closed the box.
“I cannot accept these, Luis” I felt like leaving brusque I was made to feel so uncomfortable. But that would have been rude, and I was more confused than offended. I couldn’t understand how I could be so special to someone I barely knew.
“I want you to have them.”
“Then keep them for me.”
He buried them back in his desk drawer mumbling, “Ok... But they are yours.”
I left. But I would return again, and again. And I would wear Ruth’s pearls on our wedding day.
Like the heirloom necklace given to me by my husband, pearls are traditionally passed down through generations of wearers. Over the years we have had many such strands come through the auction house. Each of these necklaces with the stories of the people who gave them and the women who wore them, knotted together with silk and clasped in gold. I look forward to the day I pass on Ruth’s pearls when my daughters are grown. That is why keeping preservation in mind while wearing them is so very important to me. I would like to share with you my tips for keeping pearls healthy and lustrous.
“Last on, First off!”
Pearls are an organic gemstone made of nacre, a translucent, iridescent secretion that forms concentric layers around microscopic irritants that find their way into the mantle folds of shelled mollusks. This luminous substance contains both organic proteins and calcium carbonate-- compounds which are both highly susceptible to dissolution in acid.
The legendary banquet bet wagered by Cleopatra, that she could consume the most expensive meal in history illustrates the pearl’s intrinsic vulnerability. Cleopatra, in an attempt to impress her lover, Marc Antony, with the extent of Egypt’s wealth (and thereby her own); wined, dined, and luxuriated him. In the words of Pliny, extracted from his work ‘Natural History’: “...She had an entertainment set before Antony, magnificent in every respect, though no better than his