Today's pearls have moved far beyond the classic strands worn by fashion icons Coco Chanel, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in "Breakfast At Tiffany's" — or First Lady Michelle Obama, for that matter. The latest pearl designs are anything but prim.

As seen on fall runways, many fashion houses have conjured up fresh takes, ranging from overtly pretty to downright punkish. The Valentino collection, inspired by Vermeer's painting, "Girl With a Pearl Earring," featured austere dresses, edged at the collar with oversize pearls, and satin clutch bags embellished with studded pearls. At Alexander McQueen, pearls were lavishly embroidered all over skirts, dresses and tops, and used as trim on Byzantine-style sandals and black leather finger gloves. A fierce, grunge vibe at Saint Laurent got a feminine twist, as plaid and black leather were styled with single-strand pearl necklaces and pearls mingled with a medley of chains and charms on biker boots, bags and bracelets. Lanvin's pearl necklaces were trimmed with whimsical brooches, emblazoned with words such as "hot" and "cool."

One part sophisticated and one part street, the new pearl looks are all about an uptown-downtown mix. The lustrous underwater gems soften Fenton's metal mesh scarf, Aurélie Bidermann's bold, sculptural jewelry and Nicholas Kirkwood's sexy, stiletto ankle booties. Aptly named Joomi Lim's Lost Innocence bracelet juxtaposes polished pearls with heavy-metal spikes, while Australian designer Ryan Storer uses elaborate clusters of pearls and crystals to create a seeming paradox: elegant ear cuffs.

This month British nail lacquer brand Ciaté is to debut its Caviar Luxe Manicure, a metallic polish topped with "caviar pearls" in silver, gold or rose gold, inspired by fine jewelry. "The pearls are really weighty and luxurious," says Ciaté founder Charlotte Knight, comparing them to the brand's popular Caviar Manicure, which features diminutive beads.

Pearls are even the theme of a new exhibition that's scheduled to run through Jan. 19 at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. On display are rare pearl jewels and ornamentation from the early Roman Empire to the present day, including the strand of Mikimoto cultured pearls that Joe DiMaggio presented to Marilyn Monroe on their honeymoon. Among the tiaras and royal pieces are a Norman Hartnell pearl-embellished dress worn by Queen Elizabeth II in 1957 and the single pearl earring worn by King Charles I at his 1649 beheading for treason.

As Jacqueline Kennedy once said, "Pearls are always appropriate."

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