Privilege Blog

Pearls For A Sixteenth Birthday

Some of you are curious about giving or receiving pearls for a 16th birthday. Let’s answer your questions, even those you did not know you asked.

Which pearls to give, or request, for a 16th birthday? Ah, tell me first what you want them to mean.

We could solve a simple equation, as in, since 16-year olds are fashionable these days, (what with teenaged style bloggers, 16-year old models, and television shows like Gossip Girl), therefore we present a 16-year old with pearl fashion.

The usual Privilege pearl fashion involves irony. All great expressive statements require some inner tension; oxymorons generate their own buzz. For example, you can string nacre on copper wire, fashion it into a tassel, overload it with mid-century references in a gold bow.

But in so doing you sidestep the cultural implications of a single silk-strung strand of pearls. Whether we like it or not, whether we subscribe to the writ or march in protest on metaphoric streets, pearls mean feminine. And in particular, pearls on a young woman have traditionally signified feminine purity and a readiness for marriage.

What to do about that? Well, one could:

  1. Embrace the traditional construct
  2. Reject it and pearls too
  3. Reclaim pearls. Evolve their significance

I’m voting for #3. Pearls on a 25-year old already hint at a certain graceful acceptance of protocol, which can stand one in good stead, professionally. After all, rules are best broken by those who know them well. Larger pearls on a 35-year old say success. And very large ones, on us older sorts, say great success, either of our own making or shared with a revenue-generating partner. All to the good.

Whether you’re embracing the traditional for this 16th birthday, or some sort of evolution, here are some routes to that classic strand of pearls. First, something playful, in glass. Patsy Kane, whom you see around here wisecracking in our comments, offers this ribbon-tied fancy. On the traditional side, and sweet as strawberries. I’d opt for this bow, slightly smaller pearls.

Patsy Kane Pearl Necklace

Second, you can buy a strand of smallish round real pearls. Let’s say I prefer uniform pearls to a graduated strand, at this size. Saltwater cultured pearls are now known as Akoya, but were first produced by Mikimoto. You can follow Pearl Paradise’s CEO, Jeremy Shepherd, on Twitter.

Spend $126 for a 16-inch AAA 6.5-7.0mm strand of freshwater pearls.

Alternatively, a 16-inch AAA strand of 6.0-6.5 Akoyas can be had for $378. If the lustre is equivalent, in fact I prefer the freshwaters’ slight deviation from the round . Rejoice in those moments where less costly is more desirable.

The final alternative, and one with its own history and a certain poignancy, is Add-A-Pearl. No, I am not kidding. My mother, in her own inimitable style, gave my daughter a few pearls on a gold chain when she turned 16. They’ve added pearls subsequently, via a trusted jeweler in Santa Barbara. It’s something between them. I leave it undiscussed. I do not know the cost.

But one could subscribe to the actual Add-A-Pearl operation, extant in Illinois. They have a Facebook discount on offer right now. I would not have expected to say the words, “Facebook” and “Add-A-Pearl” together, but such is modern life and one is well-advised to ride along. Here’s what you might give your 16-year old:

Simple, yes? Innocent, yes? Unfortunately, also expensive. It will cost you $149 for just four 4mm pearls. Or, if you buy natural pearls instead of cultured, you will pay for $206 for one 2.7mm pearl, and two 2.3mms. Yup. Add-A-Pearl explains the difference between cultured and natural quite well here. Suffice it to say that  Cartier traded a strand of natural pearls for their Fifth Avenue storefront, back in the day.

I like Add-A-Pearl because you’re buying an experience, the promise of a continued relationship, albeit with a commercial underpinning.

But I also like it because you’re sketching out a concept, not predicting the future. Should your 16-year old have the option and the desire to become a debutante, she can add matched pearl upon pearl. Should she decide to attend Cooper Union on scholarship and live in the East Village with 6 other students, she can add aardvark charms. Or whatever they’re wearing in the East Village by then.

Either way, mark a birthday you may find meaningful with lustre. Lustre, somehow, implies more possibility than a harder shine. Shall we say that pearls celebrate an illustrious future? If we prefer philosophy to word play, purity of heart serves us well in any cultural context.

*No compensation has been received for this post. Affiliate links may provide commissions.

55 Responses

  1. I love the pearls with the bow – perfect for a 16-year old. I don’t know, just thinking of a busy teenager running here and there, I would worry about a very expensive set of pearls getting lost at some point. Save the really nice set for college graduation or a wedding. Probably more practical than WASPy of me, but I’m a worrier. :)

  2. My grandmother gave me a beautiful, although now seemingly modest, strand of pearls from Mikimoto for my college graduation. I’m saving them for a granddaughter (I hope, I hope). My husband graced me with the lovely double strand of substantial pearls I wear now. BUT….I’ve seen some awfully nice cultured pearls in Costco….just sayin’.

  3. I think I prefer the add-a-pearl option. Mostly because I like the idea of adding pearls to mark special occasions such as a birthday or graduation, but also because I cannot fathom giving any 16-year-old a full strand of pearls. At least, no 16-year-old *I* raised. ;)

  4. As my Aunt was a jeweler, my Mother gave me freshwater 6.5mm pearls as a graduation gift from Chatham Hall. Incredibly rewarding, traditional and more meaningful knowing my aunt handpicked each pearl!

  5. I got an Add-a-Pearl for my fourth birthday from my godfather and got the last pearl recently. I wore the single pearl on a gold chain for my first communion and on random Wednesdays throughout highschool and college and am debating how to assemble the pearls together into a necklace. What to do with these pearls? Am I a debutante or an east village type with aadvarks? Not sure yet. But I like the idea that when I wear them I carry twenty years of my godfather’s love and twenty years of myself with me. It’s a good vibe.

  6. Ironic pearls! Who knew? Now I am thinking…maybe…a pearl or two worked into a leather wristband? With mid-century references, yes. But hold the gold bow.

  7. I think pearls in any of these terrific options is a great gift for a young lady. I have a small set of freshwater that I used to wear on interviews, and now I also own my mother’s gorgeous set with the ruby and gold clasp.

  8. My grandmother gave me a shorter strand of pearls for my sixteenth birthday, as well as a very long strand of small, flat, and grey/blue softwater pearls (my family is astoundingly WASP-y, considering we’re French Canadian and therefore culturally catholic…). I only really started wearing the white pearls regularly in the past few years (past the age of 25), but the irregular blue pearls are just lovely, and I’ve been wearing them regularly for years.

    I also deeply appreciate having the white pearl necklace, though I didn’t wear it until I got a more corporate job in my 20s – pearls work wonders for professional outfits, at a time where spending on accessories is somewhat limited (condo-buying guts a mid-20s salary). It also dresses up cardigans and sundresses beautifully.

    Having both strands of pearls is very nice, however. They both get a fair amount of wear, the gray pearls are nicely offbeat and bohemian (depending on the outfit, anyway – artsy?), and I’ve combined both necklaces with a few others for a fairly impressive multiple-strand piece for formal occasions and long dresses. Oh, the variety!

  9. I gave a strand of multi-colored freshwater pearls to my god-daughter last month for her 16th. They were 5mm, quite tiny and lovely. The deviation from the norm was the mix of colors, which seemed fresh and modern while still having the heft of real pearls.

    Pearl Paradise has truly wonderful pearls at great prices. Must. Not. Buy. More. For. Myself…

  10. It’s timely that you would choose to write about pearls and young girls at this time.
    If I were gifting a strand I’d prefer traditional pearls instead of the add a pearl concept.

    The middle school girls aged 12-14 are wearing strands of pearls to school where I work. They may be faux but they are showing up more and more!

    I wondered with all the edgier Pyrrah and Raven Moon necklaces if there was some kind of backlash or tend happening, a return to a softer more feminine way of dressing.

    I used to think that pearls suited more mature women.
    I have completely changed my opinion.
    Oh and BTW,,,
    At my age a gum ball pearl necklace would be perfect!

  11. My mom left me her pearls. Not a single strand, but 3 strands set with a few bells and whistles that, while they were perfect for her “cocktail hour at the Ritz”, are nothing that I would remotely ever wear. But they were my mom’s! So, I do a bit of jewelry making and I love recycling gems from old pieces, cleaning them up and giving them a new lease in a new design. I dismantled the pearl necklace and created a pearl lariat that is just the most elegant thing I own. It wraps once around the neck, then ties in a half hitch just above the breasts, with a couple of the smaller bells and whistles worked into the ends. It looks very Erte. I love wearing it and I always get loads of compliments. But best of all….it’s my mom….and it’s me…together.

    This said, I’d suggest reworking an heirloom or personal set of pearls into a necklace more in tune to a young girl’s tastes and times (the pearls with the ribbon is lovely!). There are lots of jewelry makers and beaders out there who could do that. Probably at a very reasonable price. Check out the back pages of a beading magazine available at your local Barnes and Noble, or look up a bead supply store near you where beaders congregate.

  12. i love pearls! you can’t go wrong with a pair of pearl stud earrings at any age. and i think people underestimate their chic versatility!

  13. Terrific post, as usual. Love the choices and commentary. I still wear my first strand of pearls. I cherish them and they are so much more than jewelry to me. While I may have larger pearls as well, the original modest strand still serves me best.

  14. “Larger pearls on a 35-year old say success. And very large ones…”
    Lisa, could you please specify larger pears and very large pearls size in mm for a slender petite 5’4” lady with longer neck, smaller chest and V body type. Thank you for the lovely post.

  15. I got a lovely strand of Mikimoto pearls and the large stud earrings on my 21st birthday, but I had a Mikimoto pearl ring when I was about 15. I think 16 is a bit young for serious jewelry. Maybe some simple gold pieces, but I think 16 is a bit too young to really appreciate anything really first rate (of course I didn’t feel that way when I was 16!).

  16. LPC.. Great post! I embarked on this venture with my godaughters at birth. The idea was to add one each year which I postponed until the 21st approached. It is now looming and I have been wondering….Problem solved!
    Now if I could only remember who my godchildren actually are!

    From forgetful 53 years of beauty.. woman :)

    Jeanne xx

  17. I love the add-a-pearl option. And the base can be either classic or young, with a lot of flexibility.

    However, I will say that my grandfather gave me a classic strand of pearls for my 18th birthday and I hated them. I left them with my mother when I went off to college. By my mid-twenties, I began to appreciate them. They are now treasured, both because every professional woman needs a strand of pearls and because it my grandfather was never the best at gift-giving, except he somehow knew I would grow into this particular item.

  18. my sister-in-law has an add-a-pearl necklace, lovingly added to from time to time. you’re right: the relationship aspect makes it special. if i had a daughter, i would have started such a necklace for her.

  19. This post has me inspired to pick out some cool jewelry for my nieces when they turn 16. But to get my nephew? Maybe he’ll pierce something by then.

  20. I loved this post, but don’t particularly like the add a pearl concept. I would much rather give a whole strand of very nice pearls (like some that you mentioned) and be done with the gift.

    The add a pearl idea means a continuing obligation to buy the pearls each year (or how ever often). IF your young recipient does not love/like them (now or ever), they will feel a bit sad and ungrateful each time they receive one and may not keep up with them or have them assembled. You, on the other hand, if you find out that they are not a favorite gift, will feel somewhat burdened with continuing the gift. In other words, the idea seems like a good one, but in practice might not be the best idea.

  21. Hmmmm, I’m thinking if I started “Adding a Pearl” for Nola now, I’d have a nice little strand to offer her later — perhaps she wouldn’t appreciate it at 16, but it would be there when she’s ready for it — thanks for the idea!

  22. Do you like gray or dark pearls, or just white ones? And what length do you think is the most versatile for someone around our age? Very nice post.

  23. In Australia the fashion seems to be for younger women to wear one fairly large natural pearl on a chain or wire. The full strands tend to be left for somewhat older women. While this is very fashionable I also think it reflects the more prosaic fact that a full strand of decent sized pearls is quite expensive here.

    I have a stunning bracelet made of fairly chunky silver links that is held together with a little clasp that has one largish but not quite perfectly round (more of a fat teardrop) shape that hangs from it, almost like a charm. I adore it but am too scared to wear it every day as the pearl does rub on things like keyboards and hard surfaces.

    I enjoyed this post a lot, thanks Lisa.

  24. I can see pearls on a bow looking beautiful on my almost 12-year old daughter. But does not the bow eventually work its way round to the front? Perhaps this is part of the charm, though I might be constantly adjusting my strand . . .

  25. Pearls with bows, diamonds or by themselves are always beautiful. I’m a lover and wearer of pearls, and enjoy seeing the variety of ways they are set and worn. They are so lovely and elegant!

  26. Mother left my brother her double strand of 10mm. Smart me–got him to agree splitting the strand so at least I have one. They are beautiful and the luster grows with wear.

  27. When I was 8 years old I went to a pearl farm in Thailand. It was amazing. It’s one of my favourite memories.

  28. When my mother graduated from college, her father gave her a strand of silk-strung graduated pearls and matching earrings. When I graduated from high school, she passed them on to me. I loved them when I was in my early 20s (there is something just right about a young woman wearing vintage pearls), then put them away only to rediscover their luster in my mid-30s.

    I generally don’t wear the earrings together with the pearls, as that usually leaves me feeling a little too much like the elder Mrs. Bush, but I love them paired with something sparkly, and although I will be glad to pass them along to my daughter when she graduates from high school, I will also miss them when they’re no longer mine.

  29. Thank you for this post about pearls as a sixteenth birthday gift.

    I also enjoyed your recent post about towels as a hostess gift.

    May I request/suggest that you do a post on the topic of thoughtul, wasp-approved wedding gifts.

    I know you were just involved in your brother’s lovely wedding. And, wedding season is upon us. I always respect your ideas. I’m going to be shopping for a few wedding gifts, soon.

  30. A great post Lisa and so interesting too. Love the idea of ‘Add a pearl’ – wonderful. x

  31. Apparently we rather get them at 18 in Europe. A friend refused them and got a nice classical necklace instead. The point is it’s the official entrance into adulthood. Or sort of.

  32. I have a niece turning 16 later this year and I must say, I never thought of getting her pearls. Her style is kind of sporty/rock and roll, and she wears only silver jewelry. I was thinking more of diamond studs. When her younger sister turns sixteen, I think it might be an appropriate gift for her. Different styles, obviously.

    Just curious…what alternatives would you suggest for a girl who would not appreciate pearls? I should add that their are family pearls she could be given at a later date if she changes her style.

    Thanks for another thoughtful post!


  33. All great options!! We gave my daughter pearl earrings – that way she could have the real thing without breaking the bank. I adore pearls and could have endless strands in many variations. For now I’ll have to make due with my one!

  34. Lovely choices. I have found that I am more partial to the Chinese freshwater pearls than to the Akoyas. My nieces would like the options with the ribbons or the small beaded strand on top.

  35. This winter when joining my brother and SIL for my first-ever professional hockey game the SIL’s initial words (accompanied by a hoot of laughter) upon seeing me were, “Only you would wear pearls to a hockey game.”

    You can imagine how much a I adore this post, especially your suggestion we reclaim them and “evolve their significance.” Utter brilliance on your part Miss LPC, just like your Polyvore.

    Thank you for brightening the afternoon, once again.

  36. My grandmother gave me a long (24″) strand of pearls on my 16th birthday and it instilled in me an absolute love of pearls. Didn’t help that I started idolizing Audrey Hepburn around the same time!

    I still wear that necklace, and since those who are dear to me know how much I love pearls, I’ve ammassed a nice collection of earrings and single pearls on chains, etc. I think pearls are elegant, timeless and feminine.

  37. I cannot believe you are trying to get people to buy pearls for a 16 yearold ,have you lost your sense of reality or what?? Please….

  38. Patsy – My distinct pleasure. Next time I go to Paris I want a bow-tied bracelet:).

    Jen – I agree, really, and thought the same thing.

    HHH- I almost always find myself looking at the Costco diamonds:).

    Jan – Oh the family jewelry I have lost….

    Worthy – That is wonderful, and I can imagine your mother and aunt conspiring and loving it.

    Hannah – I think that’s the exact story when these things are done well. And, of course, there’s always the pearl headband.

  39. drubeck – Absolutely on a leather wristband. Absolutely.

    Stephanie – I always covet pearl clasps. Ruby and diamond sounds brilliant.

    Ros – Thank you so much for this idea. I’d even go so far as to say the ideal pearl strategy would be balancing pieces that’re completely traditional with those that are more indie. It’s lovely to have room for for sorts. I have a pair of lavender/gray pearl studs that I wear all the time.

    Louise – Lucky god-daughter. I like the tiny pearls, a lot.

    Hostess – Go for the gumballs! How interesting that you are seeing this trend with middle schoolers. I am going to have to see if we have the same thing here.

    Lara – Beautiful. Your necklace sounds just beautiful, and very unique. I am trying to dare reworking some of my unworn stuff. Just tell me, courage, woman!

  40. miss sophie – if you wear pearls I know I’m on the right track.

    Muffy – I can imagine your pearls as a signature piece for you.

    Russian Chic – My pleasure. I like a 9mm strand for large, and for very large, 12mm. I don’t like to go bigger, seems like one is trying to dress like a movie star. Unless one attends very formal events, in which case the sky and the budget is the limit:).

    Reese – I would probably agree with you. That said, people keep Googling the question, so I felt I ought to answer:).

    Jeanne – Bwahahahaha. Lucky godaughters.

    Becca – A perfect example of the evolution of a particular pearl mythology, both in the personal relationship and relationship to society.

  41. Susan Tiner – You’d look great in a pearl strand. Maybe pink-toned? Freshwater and a little irregular?

    Emmaleigh – Or maybe men will be wearing pearls by then. One never knows:).

    Susan – It’s absolutely true, what you say. You have to make sure to get it right if you give an ongoing present. Otherwise, especially in a High WASP culture, there’s going to be a lot of stuff left unsaid, burdening the relationship.

    Mater – My daughter liked hers very much. But that could have been predicted, in a way, from her early personality.

    Kathy – I love gray pearls. Especially those with a lavender undertone, clasped in reddish 18 or 24kt. I persist in my 8 -8.5mm strand, which works for jeans and cocktail dresses, but I am sure some could go larger. It may depend on your own size, and the proportions you are happy with. Thank you.

    A Farmer’s Wife – You’re welcome. The necklace style you describe appeals to me. As does your bracelet, from the sound of it. I like, for myself, the contrast of pearls and something less elegant.

  42. Miss Cavendish – I don’t know! Ask Patsy, I am sure she will be glad to help out:).

    Candy Dye – I too just like to see all the ways pearls can be worn.

    Gablesgirl – Smart you indeed:). Also nice, you and brother sharing something of your mother’s.

    Laura – One could really get creative, if one had the ability:).

    Sophie – I’d love to go. Heck, I’d love to go back to Thailand at all! But a pearl farm would be really nifty.

    Sarah – I agree, I don’t wear my pearl strand with plain pearl studs. Too rote. But I’m happy that pearls aren’t getting completely discounted by the young in the West:).

  43. A.G. – OK. Wedding presents. In brief, I like to get the couple from their registry:). I know everyone wants to do something original, but really, they register for what they want a lot of the time. That said, I will certainly do a post and I thank you for the idea.

    Sarah – xox.

    James – We thank you for the endorsement, sir.

    La Victorienne – I agree, it is an emergence. I didn’t get pearls until I was 21. I have been surprised by all the Googling, but thought I’d address the question for those who wonder.

    Christine – For a girl who doesn’t appreciate pearls, I think a gold or silver chain, with an unusual design to the links, would be well-used and serve the purpose of introducing classic style in a way that could work with rock and roll:).

    Quintessence – Pearls earrings are probably more useful anyway, at least for the young:).

  44. Mardel – I’d love to take a look at some freshwater strands, having only Akoyas to date.

    TPP – Ha! Only you! That is a great image. You have brightened my entire day:).

    Miss Amy Lou – What a grandmother, to see the potential for future elegance in a 16-year old girl. The best part is that she clearly got it right.

    Donald – Oh, I’m not. I didn’t own any pearls until I was 21. But since I was getting so many Google questions, I assumed some people wanted the information, and better they make an informed purchase than not.

  45. silly me!

    I just thought every baby girl was gifted an add a pearl necklace at birth on a very fine gold chain, as well as an engraved silver cup. Then Granny and Bebop (insert pet names of your choice) could add a few at each birthday and Christmas so that when babygirl was a young lady she had a lovely necklace as the chain gradually grew shorter and shorter. Babygirl was vaguely aware of the necklace’s existence and always included it in her de rigueur thank you note but never really appreciated it until the Charity Ball, wedding, what have you when she had a lovely strand of perfectly matched small pearls to wear.

    The larger ones come later after graduate school when they’re more appropriate.

    And as the Mother of this particular babygirl I’ll be holding onto and likely occasionaly sporting the small pearls on occasion until my sweet 21 year old is ready to have them steadily in her possession. Being a young woman of strong opinions we skipped the debutante thing, and hopefully a wedding is far in the future–maybe her college graduation in a few years? Mother knows best.

    I just assumed they just arrived at hospital along with the baby or in my personal old fashioned case a few weeks later, as I’d no idea whether baby was a he or she—wanted the surprise! There’s a column for you: high WASPS have no idea, thus their infants are dressed in white, yellow or pale green for the first six months. With none of those horrid headband/bow things. Just a thought.


  46. Why thank you, I accept your goddess mantle with pleasure! Pearl Paradise have a June special on black akoyas, which might please the edgier 16 year old more than white.

    See also Kate Hines, selling many pretty pearl pieces suitable for the age but not too young.

  47. What an apt post! I thought I should let you know…

    Inspired by your many pearl-related entries, I recently purchased (on Ebay, natch) an akoya 7mm 16″ necklace-and-studs set as a gift for my 22-year-old cousin’s college graduation. I figure she can wear them for job interviews and court dates, if nothing else. *g*

    Now, of course, I want some for myself!

    My $0.02, speaking as a former 16-year-old: I would have strongly preferred recieving traditional pearls as a gift to those embelished with ribbons, copper wire, etc: Unless the giver really — REALLY — knew my style, odds are the embelished pearls would have been “off” and I wouldn’t have worn them… and, unlike traditional pearls, they likely would have gone out of fashion.

  48. Coming into this discussion very late…

    As the mother of two middle school daughters, I am planning to buy them each their first strand of pearls on their 16th birthdays. I’ll go old school traditional because good pearls never go out of style. My parents bought mine for me back in the 80s when I was a teen(and we know what fashions were like then) and I still wear mine to this day.

    But before that, my girls will be given the silver charm bracelets that I’ve been putting together for them for years. Whenever we travel, I find three matching charms that symbolize that trip in some way — one goes on my bracelet (which my girls love, especially since it’s so full and heavy now) and the others go on their bracelets, which are hidden in my jewelry box for now. My husband and I have just decided that this will be the Christmas the girls get the bracelets, as they’ll both be in middle school and that seems like the right time. While the pearls will be appreciated one day, the bracelets will be appreciated now, because each charm will tell a story about a family vacation we’ve taken.

  49. Coming to this conversation very late indeed…

    I started my goddaughter’s pearls the day she was born; they’ll be completed for her high school graduation, which will be just after her 18th birthday. ‘Twas ever the plan.

    That said, the pearl or two or six (sometimes I procrastinate) is never the main present for the occasion, whatever it may be. For a while it was American Girl doll things. Including a pony for the doll (I am a soft touch for girls and ponies). Lately it seems to be about shoes. But there’s always a pearl whispering in the background, and sometimes the pearls-with-chain come out for a special event, like going to the American Girl store on 5th Ave.

    It’s so much fun this way I can’t think why anyone would do it differently.

    My mother-in-law gave me her double strand the night before the wedding. I cherish them, and being a New England sort of WASP (not High, more Middle High), they are the default necklace. Sort of like the earrings you sleep in for a few weeks.

    Love your blog.


  50. I have twins who are turning 16. My son requested an expensive electric bass for his birthday, and as it is a fairly permanent gift (it should last him for decades), I wanted to get something of similar value for his twin sister. My daughter, who is my resident hippie, has nothing special in mind and says she doesn’t need anything. I love the tradition of pearls and have been very close to making the purchase. The only hold back has been that although I know she will treasure them, she will rarely wear them for the next few years. But your column and the many posts have convinced me – A small strand of Akoyas to enjoy over time, and the new boots she’s been lusting after for now. Should be a win-win situation. Thanks!

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