Pearls have long been associated with beauty, elegance and femininity. Their spherical shape and luminous sheen are visually pleasing, making pearls a popular choice for jewelry and fashion accessories. But despite being a quintessential symbol of womanhood, pearls themselves do not actually have a gender.
How are pearls formed?
Pearls are formed inside the shells of certain mollusks, usually oysters or mussels. They begin as irritants, such as parasites or small pieces of sediment, that make their way inside the mollusk’s shell. To reduce irritation and protect itself, the mollusk secretes a fluid called nacre to coat the irritant. Layer upon layer of nacre builds up over time, eventually forming a pearl.
The process of pearl formation does not involve sex or reproduction. Therefore, pearls do not have biological sex characteristics. Their gender associations come purely from human perceptions and symbolism, rather than any inherent male or female qualities.
Symbolism and gender roles
Throughout history, pearls have taken on feminine connotations in many cultures. In ancient Rome, pearls were strongly associated with women. They were seen as both beautiful and precious, paralleling virtues favored in women at the time.
During the Middle Ages, European nobles often gifted pearls to their daughters. The spherical shape came to represent purity, while the white color stood for innocence. Pearls became symbols of courtship once worn as necklaces or earrings.
By the early 20th century, pearls had become indelibly linked with femininity in the Western world. Elegantly dressed women wore strands of pearls as the epitome of class and sophistication. Pearls also took on sensual overtones, enhancing the necks, ears and wrists of fashionable ladies.
Reasons for feminine symbolism
There are a few reasons why pearls became so strongly coded as feminine over time:
- Their white color evoked purity, innocence and maidenhood.
- Their spherical shape was seen as delicate and graceful.
- Their rarity and value made them a luxurious adornment.
- Mythological connections to female goddesses like Aphrodite.
- Association with water, which was seen as feminine.
Thus, while pearls themselves have no biological sex, their feminine connotations stemmed from cultural perceptions of beauty, value and gender.
Are some pearls more masculine?
Most cultured or natural pearls are fairly uniform in their feminine symbolism. However, a few particular types of pearls do carry more masculine associations.
Black pearls are much rarer and more expensive than classic white pearls. Their dark color is seen as more dramatic and bold. This gives them a more masculine edge, making black pearl jewelry popular for men.
Large baroque pearls
Baroque pearls have irregular, non-spherical shapes. Large baroque pearls read as less delicate and more substantial. Their heft lends them a masculine air, and they are often used in jewelry for men.
Golden pearls are South Sea pearls cultivated with a naturally golden hue. Their rich, warm color has masculine overtones due to its association with metals like gold. Golden pearls can make striking jewelry for men when combined with black gems like onyx.
Do men wear pearls?
Historically, pearls have been predominantly worn by women as symbols of femininity. However, men have also worn pearls throughout history. Some examples include:
- 16th century portraits of powerful men like King Henry VIII decorated with pearl jewelry.
- Military uniform decorations featuring pearls.
- Persian rulers adorned with pearl necklaces as far back as the 5th century BCE.
Today, pearls remain a staple of women’s fashion. But modern men have also embraced wearing pearls and pearl jewelry in fresh, stylish ways.
Celebrity men who wear pearls
Many male celebrities help lead the trend of men wearing pearls:
|ASAP Rocky||Chunky pearl necklace|
|Harry Styles||Single pearl earring|
|Shawn Mendes||Layered pearl necklaces|
Musicians, actors and other men are embracing pearls in modern, fashion-forward ways.
Tips for men wearing pearls
Here are some tips for men to stylishly incorporate pearls:
- Start small – one pearl in an ear, on a ring, etc.
- Try darker colors like black or gray.
- Focus on subtle, minimalist pieces.
- Layer pearls with leather, metals or other masculine textures.
- Choose baroque or large pearls for a bold style.
With the right aesthetics, pearls can certainly find a home in many men’s wardrobes as well.
Pearls in LGBTQ+ culture
Like gender norms in general, the traditional femininity of pearls has also been challenged within LGBTQ+ communities. Pearls have become symbolic in some queer circles.
Drag queens playfully embrace extreme femininity, and pearls are a big part of their signature looks. Outrageous pearl necklaces, oversized pearl drop earrings and pearl jewelry cover many drag costumes.
Leather and pearls
Leather and pearls have contrasted as stereotypically hypermasculine vs. hyperfeminine. Combining them has become an LGBTQ+ fashion statement, mixing gender signifiers.
“Camp” style plays up exaggerated femininity. Campy pearl jewelry has become popular for challenges to gender assumptions.
Overall, pearls remain cultural symbols open to reinterpretation – including in realms of gender identity and expression.
In the end, pearls themselves have no inherent gender. As products of nature, pearls simply form through a chemical process within mollusks. The strong feminine associations pearls carry are creations of human culture and imagination.
Yet the story of pearls also shows that gendered meanings are not static. Masculine overtones can emerge, like with black pearls. And their traditional femininity has been reinvented within LGBTQ+ culture. Ultimately, pearls reflect how we as humans continually shape and reshape the relationship between gender and the inanimate objects around us.