Symbolic pearl gestures – symbolic of grief – were ubiquitous at Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral on Monday. Both Catherine, Princess of Wales and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex have both chosen pieces created with the natural gemstone.
Often referred to as ‘mourning jewellery’, the soft, finely polished and colorless nature of pearls, along with associations of purity, are considered an appropriate choice to represent the period of mourning.
The Queen was also rarely seen without her signature pearl necklace, and some of her favorite pieces from her private jewelery collection featured the precious stone.
But while the Queen often wore pearls, the poignant reason why royals wear pearl jewelry at funerals and during mourning actually goes back much further than the late monarch’s reign.
Why do female royals wear pearls during times of mourning?
The tradition of pearls as “mourning jewelry” actually dates back to Queen Victoria.
After the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria was so grieving that she wore only black for the next 40 years until the end of her life, adorning her colorless clothes with pearls said to represent tears.
Victoria wore many pearls for the rest of her life, and the tradition of wearing the gems during mourning has continued in the royal family to the present day.
Queen Victoria’s complex and sometimes rigid rules surrounding mourning rituals inspired the same etiquette throughout the late 19th century.
“Until the 1860s, a widow was expected to dress in black for a year and a day after her husband’s death, wearing minimal matte black ornaments, usually of unpolished jet,” writes Clare Phillips, curator of jewelery at Museum Victoria and Albert. her book Jewelry and Jewelery.
“Gradually she was allowed more elaborate mourning jewellery, then diamonds and pearls and finally a return to colored stones,” he adds. “Some widows, following the example of Queen Victoria, never returned to lighter pieces.”
Queen Victoria’s choice was rooted in tradition, and the humble, respectful outward gesture of grief became a historic choice for members of the royal family during times of mourning and at funerals.
The late Queen Elizabeth II herself wore pearls at the funerals of Princess Margaret, King George VI, the Queen Mother and Diana, Princess of Wales, and more recently, at the funeral of her husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh in 2021.
And other members of the royal family faithfully followed the example of the late monarch.
Diana, Princess of Wales chose a simple string of pearls for the funeral of Princess Grace of Monaco in 1982, and again for the funeral of Gianni Versace 10 years later.
Catherine, Princess of Wales, wore the Queen’s four-string pearl and diamond choker for the Queen’s funeral, which her mother-in-law, Princess Diana, had previously worn.
Kate previously borrowed the choker to wear to the Queen and Prince Philip’s 70th birthday celebrations in 2017 and later to the prince’s funeral in 2021. Given the emotional story behind the necklace, it’s no wonder she wore it again to honor the late monarch.
With four strands of pearls and a diamond clasp, the choker was originally given to the Queen by Japan in the 1970s and was often worn by her, including on a state visit to Bangladesh in 1983.
Meghan, Duchess of Sussex wore a pair of pearl and diamond earrings, which were given to her by the Queen after her marriage to Prince Harry at both the procession and the Queen’s funeral.