Imagine Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and a hard-core, leather-clad biker chick. A few years ago the two wouldn't even share...

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Imagine Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and a hard-core, leather-clad biker chick. A few years ago the two wouldn’t even share the same sentence, but now these opposites would both be attracted to what’s available in pearls today.

The pearl dates back to the earliest civilizations and was the first gem to be valued. It is still used for elegant, classic jewelry. But it has gotten a makeover by some designers that’s brought the pearl right out of its shell.

It’s become hip, and this traditionally prim, proper jewel is mixing with new company. It’s being paired with all sorts of nontraditional materials and metals including leather, rubber and the very un-demure tin can.

Britney Spears, Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox are just a few among the crop of celebrities who’ve been seen wearing their pearls. Of course, Angelina Jolie prefers hers black.

“They’ve come back huge in the past 18 months to two years,” says Virginia Halevi, editor-in-chief of the Web site jewelry.com that provides information on jewelry. “Everyone thinks of pearls as their grandmother’s or mother’s strand of pure white pearls. But with cultured pearls, they became a lot more affordable.”

Until recently, the jewelry industry was finding the traditional treatment of pearls boring, she said.

“But now pearls are gold, they’re purple, they’re brown, they’re in all different shapes. Black pearls are huge. One of the biggest things is high-end pearls with diamonds, with sapphires, with all different types of gemstones,” she adds.

“I’ve seen pearls with sterling silver, gold and rubber; and some are used with found materials like recycled tin cans or enamel steel signs riveted together. There are all kinds of things done with pearls. They can be as quiet or as big as you want them to be. A big trend is in the cocktail rings or big rings; the pearl rings are fantastic.”

Patricia Tschetter, a Dallas-based jewelry designer who has incorporated pearls into some of her most modern creations, says it’s the affordability of the jewels that is making the world their oyster. Pearl jewelry is available now for less than $100.

Royal lineage

But that wasn’t always the case. John Loring, Tiffany’s design director since 1979 and author of the new book “Tiffany Pearls” (Abrams, $50), says the gems were traditionally the possessions of kings and queens, and there was nothing more precious or finer. In 16th- and 17th-century paintings, royalty was always seen adorned in pearls.

“They didn’t know how to cut diamonds … Emeralds were considered late in the game, and sapphires were for the church,” he says.

It was the pearl that was truly golden. And in some cases, worth more than gold. In 1916, Pierre Cartier traded a double strand for socialite Maisie Plant’s Fifth Avenue mansion, where the Cartier store is located today. The mansion and the pearls were each worth about $1.5 million at the time.

Loring writes that in the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair House of Jewels, a Tiffany single-strand pearl necklace on display was priced at $600,000 (about $6 million today); the Tiffany Diamond was worth only $200,000.

“By the time of the World’s Fair, natural pearls had reached such astronomic prices that no one could afford them,” he says. In the old black-and-white films, actresses wore fake pearls, he adds, because the real thing was prohibitive for any studio to buy.

“Pearls were always incredibly popular but incredibly out of reach,” he says. “In 1961’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ Audrey Hepburn is wearing huge fake pearls from the costume department at Paramount.”

He notes cultured pearls weren’t perfected until the late 1950s, and Tiffany started carrying them in 1959. Those knowledgeable about pearls say that they look good on virtually anyone, and that adds to their allure. Their iridescent quality complements any skin tone.

“It’s something nature has made that is perfect, and people are intrigued by that. They’re very flattering, and people have always taken a huge interest in them,” Loring says.

For guys, and multihued

Even men have always worn them — in modern times, usually in jewelry only as cuff links, pins and studs. But the options for men and pearls are changing as well, Halevi notes. There are Web sites that specifically target the male who wears pearl jewelry. A man wearing a pearl pendant dangling from a leather “chain” is a look now considered sexy, she adds.

In fact pearls are so popular that Tiffany & Co. founded Iridesse, a store devoted only to pearls. Every piece of jewelry at Iridesse contains a pearl — from black leather-studded bracelets to necklaces with black diamonds that would make a king blink. There are pink pearls, gray pearls, green pearls, brown pearls, golden pearls, round pearls, flat pearls, pearls of every description from all over the world. Prices range from $50 to $50,000.

“The idea of this was to dedicate ourselves to pearls,” says Inezita Gay, vice president of product development and pearl acquisition for Iridesse. “To do justice to the pearl, it needed to be the whole concept. We go to farms in Australia, Tahiti, China — all over — to source the pearls directly.”

Shopping in Iridesse can range from a quick trip to order pearl cuff links for the groomsmen in a wedding to being “educated” in pearls by the staff, who can give you the A to Z on all P’s.

“We want people to come in and play with pearls,” Gay says. “Our artists use pearl as their medium. It’s anything but just the round white or traditional strand.”