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A pair of Chanel Day into Night diamond and cultured pearl earrings performed just above its $4,000-$6,000 estimate when it sold for $4,750 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2018. Image courtesy of Michaan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Chanel pearls: real or imitation, always in vogue

NEW YORK – Designer Coco Chanel transformed the jewelry industry in the 1920s when she made wearing costume jewelry chic. She encouraged women to combine costume jewelry with fine jewelry, and, notably, to wear costume pearls instead of the real thing.

Elise Coronado, director of jewelry and timepieces at Michaan’s Auctions in Alameda, California, said this was just one of the iconic trends Chanel started. “She paired these giant-looking – what people thought of as pearls, but they were usually made of glass – with a little black dress, and it became all the rage.”

Another view of a pair of Chanel Day into Night diamond and cultured pearl earrings, which sold for $4,750 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2018. Image courtesy of Michaan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
Another view of a pair of Chanel Day into Night diamond and cultured pearl earrings, which sold for $4,750 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2018. Image courtesy of Michaan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Whether it’s Chanel’s early costume pearls or its later fine pearl jewelry made with cultured pearls, the Chanel pearl market, in all its forms, is active. Although traditional pearl necklaces like those that overdramatic dowagers would clutch are less popular these days, demand is still good for signed Chanel pearl jewelry, Coronado said. 

That holds true for contemporary Chanel jewelry as well. On its website, buyers can find Chanel cultured pearls and also jewelry that features glass and metal pearls. Of course, there is a huge price difference between the two, of about $15,000 to $20,000.

Pearls are often paired with diamonds at Chanel, such as in this Chanel Matelasse pearl and diamond bangle set with 66 pearls. It attained £18,000 ($22,840) plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021. Image courtesy of Etrusca Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
Pearls are often paired with diamonds at Chanel, such as in this Chanel Matelasse pearl and diamond bangle set with 66 pearls. It attained £18,000 ($22,840) plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021. Image courtesy of Etrusca Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

When looking at vintage Chanel pearl jewelry at auction, pieces made with cultured pearls will also bring serious money. A refined-looking piece that had a modern aesthetic was a Chanel Matelasse pearl and diamond bangle in a lattice design. Set with 66 pearls, it brought £18,000 ($22,840) plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021 at Etrusca Auctions.

More representative of current tastes is a signed pair of Chanel Day into Night diamond and cultured pearl earrings that performed just above its $4,000-$6,000 estimate when it sold for $4,750 plus the buyer’s premium at Michaan’s Auctions in December 2018. Modern pieces such as this are often designed to suit everyday wear and formal attire equally well. And these particular earrings present even more possibilities, as the tops can be taken off and the pearls worn alone.

A pair of Chanel Day into Night diamond and cultured pearl earrings, with the tops detached to show that the pearls can be worn separately. It sold for $4,750 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2018. Image courtesy of Michaan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
A pair of Chanel Day into Night diamond and cultured pearl earrings, with the tops detached to show that the pearls can be worn separately. It sold for $4,750 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2018. Image courtesy of Michaan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

In the wild, a pearl forms when a speck of sand gets into an oyster or a mollusk shell. To create cultured pearls, artisans place a piece of tissue or a mother-of-pearl bead into the shell’s flesh to prompt the mollusk to cover it in layers of nacre, a response that will yield a pearl after a few years. There are also what are known as mabe pearls, aka half pearls, which are pearls grown on the inside of the shell rather than within the flesh. A pair of Chanel cultured pearl and diamond ear clips made with mabe pearls sold for $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2022 at Freeman’s Hindman.

A pair of Chanel cultured pearl and diamond ear clips, made with mabe pearls, went out at $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2022. Image courtesy of Freeman’s Hindman.
A pair of Chanel cultured pearl and diamond ear clips, made with mabe pearls, went out at $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2022. Image courtesy of Freeman’s Hindman.

Chanel’s costume and cultured pearls are “two totally different animals,” according to Coronado, who explained that the markets for each are healthy. In July 2023, a pair of two signed Chanel costume brooches featuring imitation pearls and paste gemstones brought £6,000 ($7,590) plus the buyer’s premium at Lyon & Turnbull. “It’s all in the name. The name Chanel, in and of itself, makes them desirable and makes people spend a premium on them. It doesn’t even really matter that they are imitation,” she said.

A pair of two signed Chanel costume brooches featuring imitation pearls and paste gemstones brought £6,000 ($7,590) plus the buyer’s premium in July 2023. Image courtesy of Lyon & Turnbull and LiveAuctioneers.
A pair of two signed Chanel costume brooches featuring imitation pearls and paste gemstones brought £6,000 ($7,590) plus the buyer’s premium in July 2023. Image courtesy of Lyon & Turnbull and LiveAuctioneers.

Necklaces, especially big and long ones, are favored by many buyers. An opera-length Chanel necklace with costume pearls and gripoix glass realized $1,400 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2024 at J. Garrett Auctioneers.

This Chanel 18K gold and pearl necklace realized $3,400 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2020. Image courtesy of Kodner Galleries and LiveAuctioneers.
This Chanel 18K gold and pearl necklace realized $3,400 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2020. Image courtesy of Kodner Galleries and LiveAuctioneers.

Being one of the most renowned luxury brands, Chanel has mastered the art of marrying classic and contemporary styling. Reinventing the old-school pearl choker was a 31in Chanel necklace with alternating white pearls and 18K gold segments. It earned $3,400 plus the buyer’s premium at Kodner Galleries in August 2020.

An opera-length Chanel necklace with costume pearls and gripoix glass secured $1,400 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2024. Image courtesy of J. Garrett Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers.
An opera-length Chanel necklace with costume pearls and gripoix glass secured $1,400 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2024. Image courtesy of J. Garrett Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers.

Chanel has brought its love of pearls into the fashion accessory market with a range of items. A pair of Chanel pearl runway sunglasses, released in 1994, evokes the fun of wearing huge, obviously imitation pearls. The glasses sold for $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2023 at Luxurious Treasures.

This pair of Chanel pearl runway sunglasses, released in 1994, sold for $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2023. Image courtesy of Luxurious Treasures and LiveAuctioneers.
This pair of Chanel pearl runway sunglasses, released in 1994, sold for $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2023. Image courtesy of Luxurious Treasures and LiveAuctioneers.

Chanel also likes to make playful pearl-inspired statements, as with the Chanel pearl clutch from the 2005-2006 season that realized $5,000 plus the buyer premium in December 2022 at Freeman’s Hindman. The purse was created under the tenure of designer Karl Lagerfeld, who was the creative director for Chanel from 1983 to 2019. One of his main tasks was to infuse the storied design house with modernity and fresh couture looks while respecting its traditions.

A Chanel pearl clutch from the 2005-2006 season earned $5,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022. Image courtesy of Freeman’s Hindman and LiveAuctioneers.
A Chanel pearl clutch from the 2005-2006 season earned $5,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022. Image courtesy of Freeman’s Hindman and LiveAuctioneers.

Creations such as this purse have been dubbed ‘high fashion and high camp’, and clearly, buyers responded with exuberance. This purse proved to be a good investment, too, as it originally retailed for $1,450 and sold at auction nearly 20 years later for more than double that price.

The pearl has been prized as a jewel for centuries. Chanel, being Chanel, continues to find new and exciting ways to style pearls, both genuine and imitation. Grateful fashionistas embrace the house’s vision and remain as interested in its vintage treasures as its fresh-from-Fashion-Week offerings.