Token pearl gestures – symbolic of grief – were omnipresent at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II on Monday. Both Catherine, Princess of Wales, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex both chose pieces created with the natural gemstone.
Often referred to as 'mourning jewellery', the soft, subtle polish and colourless nature of pearls, along with associations of purity, are considered an appropriate choice to represent the grieving period.
The Queen, too, was rarely seen without her signature three-strand pearl necklace, and some of her favourite pieces from her private jewellery collection featured the gemstone.
But whilst the Queen would often wear pearls herself, the poignant reason why royals wear pearl jewellery at funerals and during mourning actually goes back much further than the late monarch’s reign.
Why do female members of the Royal Family wear pearls during times of mourning?
The tradition of pearls as ‘mourning jewellery’, in fact, dates all the way back to Queen Victoria.
After the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria was so overcome with grief that she famously wore only black for the next 40 years until the end of her own life, accessorising her colourless outfits with pearls which were said to represent tears.
Victoria wore several strands of pearls for the remainder of her life, and the tradition of wearing the gems during the mourning period has continued in the Royal Family into the modern day.
Queen Victoria’s complex, and sometimes rigid rules around the rites of mourning inspired the same etiquette throughout the course of the late 19th century.
“By the 1860s, a widow was expected to dress in black for a year and a day after her husband’s death, wearing minimal black matte ornaments, usually of unpolished jet,” writes Clare Phillips, jewellery curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in her book Jewels and Jewellery.
“Gradually she was allowed more elaborate mourning jewellery, then diamonds and pearls, and finally a return to coloured stones,” she adds. “Some widows, following the example of Queen Victoria, never returned to more light-hearted pieces.”
Queen Victoria’s choice was ingrained in tradition and the demure, respectful outward gesture of grief became a historic choice for members of the Royal Family during periods of mourning and at funerals.
The late Queen Elizabeth II herself wore pearls to the funerals of her Princess Margaret, King George VI, the Queen Mother and Diana, Princess of Wales, and most recently, to the funeral of her husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh in 2021.
And other members of the Royal Family have closely followed the late monarch’s example.
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 was also worn by her late mother-in-law, Princess Diana in the past.
Kate previously borrowed the choker to wear to the Queen and Prince Philip's 70th anniversary celebration in 2017, and later to the Prince’s funeral in 2021. Given the sentimental backstory behind the necklace, it's no wonder she wore it again to honour the late monarch.
Featuring four strands of pearls and a diamond clasp, the choker was originally gifted to the Queen from Japan in the 1970s and she often wore it herself, including on a state visit to Bangladesh in 1983.
Meghan, Duchess of Sussex wore a pair of pearl and diamond earrings, which were gifted to her by the Queen following her marriage to Prince Harry to both the procession and the Queen’s funeral.