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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.

And exhaled.

“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 usual repast. Upon this, Antony joked her, and inquired what was the amount expended upon it; to which she made answer that the banquet which he then beheld was only a trifling appendage to the real banquet, and that she alone would consume at the meal to the ascertained value of that amount, she herself would swallow… ten millions of sesterces; and so ordered the second course to be served. In obedience to her instruction, the servants placed before her a single vessel, which was filled with vinegar, a liquid, the sharpness and strength of which is able to dis-solve pearls. At this moment she was wearing in her ears those choicest and most rare and unique productions of Nature; and while Antony was waiting to see what she was going to do, taking one of them from out of her ear, she threw it into the vinegar, and directly it was melted, swallowed it.”

The tens of millions of sesterces quoted here have a current market value of about $28.5 million for the pair of pearl earrings. Though a pearl will not instantly dissolve in vinegar, it will soften over time and when crushed and the vinegar boiled, the reaction can taken less then 10 minutes.

For this reason, pearls require special considerations and precaution to be taken by the wearer.

Personal grooming products such as perfumes, lotions, hair spray and make-up all contain acids that will gradually weaken the structure of the pearl nacre. Even these mild acids will take their toll. With regular exposure, pearls begin to peel and ultimately dull and discolour. The golden rule of pearl wearing is often quoted as “Last on, First off” and for good reason. Your pearls should be fastened as a final touch only after all other primping has taken place, and be the first piece of jewelry to be taken off once you return home for the evening.

Additionally, Chlorine exposure, either from swimming pools or household tap water, can also damage pearls. The chlorine used to purify water is sodium hypochlorite, which will destroy a pearl’s luster on contact. To prevent any damage, dry yourself thoroughly after swimming and showering (if your water is treated with chlorine) before donning any pearl jewelry.

“Why you should wear your pearls to bed”

The safety deposit box is the place where pearls go to die. When stored in such dry, airless vaults, pearls become dull and discoloured. Imagine the disappointment upon opening a safety deposit box in which your grandmama’s treasured pearls have been withering for fifty years! The arid atmospheric conditions that extend the life of paper documents will assuredly dry out those pearls and give cause for them to crack and craze. Pearls are porous gemstones and, not surprisingly, given their origins in the sea and freshwater, they crave moisture. It is a known fact that our natural body oils and moist skin are beneficial to pearl luster. How should you wear your pearls, you might ask? Often, I’d say!

In the 18th century, a woman of gentle birth might even pay of a woman of lesser birth to wear her pearls in the hopes of maintaining the beauty of her costly jewels for court appearances and other such noble gatherings. For those of us that can’t afford to pay someone else to wear our heirloom jewelry, but lack an occasion-- wear them bed! I for one, regularly, if rather irreverently, wear Ruth’s pearls to bed. I do this with a long flannel nightgown in the winter months, my husband’s sun-bleached and seam-ripped cast off t-shirts in the summer, and sometimes with nothing at all. To quote the style icon Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis: “ Pearls are always appropriate”.

When not being worn, pearls should be stored separately from all other jewelry to prevent pitting and chipping. Ideally, this means securing them in their presentation case, a compartmentalized jewelry box, or in a chamois or satin lined pouch for safe keeping. Avoid hanging pearls as gravity can weaken the silk used for knotting over time.

I would like to close with the selection of pearl jewels from our March 26th Quarterly Catalog.

Lot 6261 in our March 26th Quarterly Auction

LOT 6261: 14K Gold Pearl Ring (Size 5) with Diamonds and 14K Gold Pearl Earrings (7.8 Dwt Total Weight); Estimated between $200-400.00

Victorian Butterfly Pin

LOT 6234: Unmarked Yellow Gold Victorian butterfly pin with center opal, 5 mm long, seed pearls on wings, 1 1/4" w, 3.0 dwt. Estimated between $100-200.00

Jade Ring with Seed Pearls

LOT 6232: 14K Yellow Gold dark green jade ring, dark green center surrounded by seed pearls, size 7, 3.1 dwt. Estimated between $200-400.00

*These tips are relevant for the care of all organic gemstones including corals, abalone, and mother of pearl.

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