In 2020, “men in pearls” was all the rage, as Hollywood and music icons had taken to wearing pearls—not in the innocuous form of cuff links studs or a single bead in a leather bracelet, but strings of the ocean gems once associated with prim-and-proper, ladylike daintiness.
Style arbiters declared men would keep wearing pearls. But we’re slow to catch on, and we weren’t holding our breath waiting for Filipino men outside of fashion and entertainment to be donning pearls.
Then we saw veteran hairstylist Henri Calayag with a string of pearls around his neck, in his usual athleisure uniform of joggers, sneakers and sweats. So, perhaps we weren’t looking hard enough?
Calayag had been wearing his pearls—bought from a Muslim lady in Quiapo and strung by a friend—layered with other necklaces since he saw early this year the Comme des Garcons x Mikimoto ad featuring a male model in a suit with a two-strand pearl necklace atop his tie.
“I got so envious and inspired to wear them,” Calayag says. “And I’m also fond of sporting men’s and women’s accessories. I feel like something is lacking in my day if I don’t accessorize.”
Fashion designer Joey Samson himself has been wearing and styling his male runway models with pearls for a long time, “though not to lay claim on anything,” he clarifies.
Samson, even as a young boy, was so fascinated with his mother’s pearl necklace that he would sneak into her room and try them on.“I had the courage to openly wear a pearl necklace only when I started traveling,” Samson says. “I’d put it in my breast pocket and wear it in my destination. Here I was hesitant because people will judge you.”
Jewelry designer Tim Tam Ong, who gets her share of male clients, says she has always loved and enjoyed working with pearls. “It gives a very luxurious and classic feel,” she adds. “There has been a vast change in the world today as more and more men are becoming adventurous and experimental in fashion, and this includes wearing jewelry.”
Brit singer Harry Styles had become the recent poster boy of men in pearls, after wearing a single drop-pearl earring and gender-bending Gucci pussy-bow top as cohost of the Met Gala in 2018. The One Direction boy band member has since been wearing pearl necklaces in other public appearances.
And Styles is not alone. Musicians A$AP Rocky, Machine Gun Kelly, Joe Jonas, Usher, Shawn Mendes and Future have all been rocking pearls. In 2016, Pharrell Williams walked the Chanel runway decked out in tweed and layers and layers of pearls, and has on occasion been seen wearing a pearl necklace. Even BTS members V and Jungkook are fans of pearl necklaces.
But why is a piece of jewelry such a big deal? After all, noble men in India from centuries ago wore pearls, which symbolized wealth and power.
Tide is turning
The first pearl, considered the oldest gemstone, is traced back to year 420, to the sarcophagus of a Persian princess, which is now on display in the Louvre. Julius Caesar is said to have passed a law that only the nobility can wear pearls. They were gifted also to Chinese sovereigns for centuries.
Pearls were prized since the only way one could have them was to dive for them deep into the ocean. That all changed when a Japanese named Kokicho Mikimoto, in the late 19th century, developed a way to cultivate pearls. Cultured pearls would become popular in many parts of the world.
Still, in literature and cinema, pearls continued to stand for social status (think Audrey Hepburn in iconic Givenchy LBD and pearls in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”). Coco Chanel, in her 1936 portrait, is seen piled with ropes upon ropes of pearls around her neck. Even the homegrown brand Jewelmer, which produces golden South Sea pearls, stands for luxury.
It was in the 1980s when pearls became associated with the staid primness of older—and old money—ladies in tweeds and twinsets. “It may be jarring to see men wearing pearls because, for a long time, pearls were a signature accessory worn by women,” Ong notes.
It seems the tide is turning as the gemstones have caught the attention of celebrity playboys who are normalizing men in pearls.
How to wear
“Pearls are perfect for men,” says Ong. “They can layer them and have fun with them as a necklace or a bracelet.”
It may be pushing it to expect conservative Filipino men to don pearl strands, Ong concedes as much. But men can wear a pearl as a stud earring or a statement ring, she adds. “They can also combine them with leather or unique materials such as horn or rough stones. These will make the pearls stand out.”
“For me it’s a matter of contrast—a simple necklace or earring is more than enough to make a statement,” says Lifestyle columnist Mel Cuevas, who designs Cova Jewelry. “It only seems jarring because jewelry, especially pearls, was always seen as a feminine adornment. But if you watch historical movies and look at some artwork from the Middle Ages, you will see both women and men wearing pearls. Today, thanks to artists like Harry Styles and BTS, the deep-rooted concept of what is masculine and feminine that we are used to is blurring.”
Samson says the key is not to overdo it. “The point is not to make one look femme but to make it part of your look. Know what to wear with it, wag pa-girl, kasi pag mali ang translation, it can make or break your look.”
He suggests wearing pearls with something sporty, or to upgrade a turtleneck. Samson likes contrasts and contradiction, like cut-off jeans with pearls—a mix of everyday and something luxurious.
“Don’t take it too seriously,” he advises. “Find the right balance and mix of garments.”
Now here’s hoping it won’t take as long as a pearl to form for this trend to catch on.