The cool girls who man the sales floor at cult jewelry shop Catbird in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, always have the most cutting-edge baubles: gold “first knuckle” rings worn near their fingertips, chains that wrap around the wrist and hands, witchy necklaces with bejeweled thorns and eyes.
But the hipster mecca, whose celeb clients include Lena Dunham, Emma Watson and Zoë Kravitz, has a new — and surprisingly classic — obsession: pearls.
“All of us wear pearls,” says Catbird’s Laura Powers, who works on the sales floor and in the studio as a jeweler. In December, the store launched its first in-house collection featuring the gemstone, with bracelets and necklaces incorporating tiny, 2-millimeter round pearls strung together with a single diamond.
Pearls — once the preferred gem of preppies, political wives and grandmothers the world over — are hot. They’re on the presidential trail, with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton wearing her signature strand after big primary wins. They’re on the red carpet, with Olivia Wilde rocking more than $1 million worth of the precious baubles around her neck at the Oscars. And they’re on the runways, appearing embroidered in diaphanous gowns and in elaborate face masks at Givenchy’s spring 2016 show, as well as in oversize strands on Chanel’s fall 2016 catwalk.
Online wholesaler the Pearl Source has been importing 10,000 pearls a month to keep up with demand — about 1,500 more than usual — and that number is projected to rise to 12,000 or even 15,000 within a few months, according to president Leon Rbibo. “It’s a classic, but we’re really seeing it all over the place,” he says. The 2015 Knight Frank Luxury Investment Index reports that the price of pearls has risen 369 percent in the past decade, with recent pearl auctions setting new world records.
“Pearls are familiar and classic, and also have a bit of a nostalgic, ‘When I’m a grown-up, I’ll wear pearls’ feeling,” says Catbird’s co-creative director Leigh Batnick Plessner. “That meeting point of heirloom and fairy tale is such a sweet spot.”
But if you think the gals shopping at the city’s trendier shops are wearing their grandma’s old pearls, think again. “Part of the interest is that there are more designers working with pearls and using them in interesting ways in more modern designs,” says Jennifer Gandia of Greenwich Jewelers, a Financial District boutique.
She points to a pair of double-pearl studs shown on the Dior runway in 2014 — and worn by Rihanna that May at Dior’s resort show — as the launchpad for the current mania for pearls in high fashion. “Rather than your traditional strand,” she says, “you’re seeing more delicate little seed pearls being mixed with diamonds in these Y-shaped lariat necklaces or placed on the edges of a cuff bracelet.”
Hollywood has also made an impact. In 2015, starlets including Felicity Jones and Lupita Nyong’o wore pearl-embroidered dresses — the latter’s Calvin Klein gown made headlines when it was stolen after she wore it to the Oscars. This past awards season, Brie Larson, Cate Blanchett, Zendaya and Jane Fonda all donned diamond-and-pearl drop earrings.
Rbibo says politics also factor into the pearl’s popularity. “We always get a boost in calls during an election year,” he explains.
Michelle Obama has done a lot to burnish the pearl’s glow. Her habit of wearing double or triple strands of the beads has trickled down to the masses. “We have been getting requests from women of all ages for these long strands that can be looped around three times,” says Elizabeth Doyle of the Meatpacking District vintage-and-antique jewelry purveyor Doyle & Doyle.
Plus, after years of being out of the limelight, pearls are finding a new audience with 20- and 30-somethings. “I’m a Gen Xer, and for my generation — unless you were super preppy — there was nothing more old-fashioned and less cool than wearing pearls,” says Greenwich Jewelers’ Gandia. “Millennials don’t have those associations with pearls. They’re looking at them in a fresh way.”