Mollusc magnificence

Caroline Bugler on “Pearls” at the Victoria and Albert Museum, until 19 January


Geoffrey Rowlandson, Grand Jeté, gold with diamonds and two cultured baroque pearls, 1999

Qatar is now a developing Middle Eastern cultural hub with shiny skyscrapers and gleaming new museums, but for centuries it was the hub of the natural pearl trade. Kokichi Mikimoto’s invention of the cultured pearl in the early 20th century put paid to that profitable industry. A poignant black and white film documenting the last-ever pearl dive in Qatar in 1972 shows a boatload of fishermen plunging into the waters of the Arabian Gulf to gather oysters from the seabed. They are equipped with little more than a nose clip, a basket and an ability to hold their breath for long periods of time. Once the precious shells have been hauled aboard they open around 2,000 before finding a single pearl. No wonder the gems were traditionally rare and highly prized.

The exhibition, which started in Doha under the aegis of the Qatar Museums Authority before moving to the Victoria and Albert Museum, begins with a brief natural history lesson. Pearls, which come in a variety of shapes, colours and sizes, grow in molluscs that have been invaded by parasites excreted by fish. They are made from the successive layers of nacreous material that form around these alien bodies. It is a less than romantic beginning to these mysterious objects which have themselves been subject to rich accretions of myth and fable.

The majority of the 200 items on display in the darkened gallery spaces are small items of jewellery. These range from simple medieval pieces to extravagant Baroque pearls fashioned into ships and torsos, sentimental Victorian jewellery, Art Nouveau adornments that weave pearls into fantastical curvilinear designs, and fabulously inventive modern pieces. Two in particular stand out: Geoffrey Rowlandson’s Jeté brooch, 1999, a witty play upon the Baroque pearl theme, and Sam Tho Duong’s Frozen Necklace, 2011, which mimics icy encrustations on tree branches. There is a full complement of tiaras, strands, earrings, chokers and a surprising brooch showing an eye surrounded by pearls. Most are shown in antique cabinets and vitrines, and while this presents an interesting contrast to the shiny expanses of glass in the modern Bollinger Jewellery Gallery upstairs, it means that visitors have to crowd round the small cases to peer into their depths. The paintings, costumes and digital displays that provide the context are much easier to see.

The show moves chronologically from Antiquity to the present day, revealing the astonishing persistence of pearls as objects of desire, and exploring their changing symbolic significance. The narrative starts with a display of Classical pearly ornaments, Pliny’s lament about their ostentatious adoption by Roman ladies and Julius Caesar’s disappointment that British freshwater pearls were far too small to satisfy Roman taste. After the advent of Christianity pearls acquired another set of associations – in medieval depictions of the life of the Virgin Mary they came to represent purity in scenes of the Annunciation and Nativity. The late 14th-century Hylle Jewel shows Gabriel and Mary in a setting embellished with rubies, emeralds and pearls. Pearls were also applied to the covers of medieval liturgical books and caskets.

The use of pearls became gradually more extravagant during the Renaissance, and paintings reveal how they were used to adorn costumes as an indication of rank and wealth. A touching late 16th-century portrait shows an unknown lady in the advanced stages of pregnancy, her dress, ruff and hair enveloped in them; by this date the gems had gathered an additional significance as emblems of fertility. They are used to signify liberality, magnificence and generosity in Beaubrun’s portrait of Jeanne de Marigny, painted a century and a half later. The French aristocrat’s bodice and décolletage are weighed down by pearls; they are caught up in the folds of her dress, woven into her hair and drip from her right hand.

Female rulers around the world, including Maria Theresa of Austria, Catherine the Great of Russia and Empress Eugénie of France have enthusiastically embraced the symbolic and decorative potential of pearls, but men have not been immune to their appeal. The Nawab of Arcot is festooned with them in Tilly Kettle’s portrait of 1772–77, while the relatively modest drop earring worn by Charles I on the way to his execution sits mournfully in its case. Members of Hollywood royalty have also been partial to the gems. Elizabeth Taylor’s outsize pearl earrings and knuckleduster of a ring are displayed alongside the more demure necklace that Joe di Maggio gave Marilyn Monroe.

Pearls are still adored by the rich and powerful, but their exclusivity has been diluted. The exhibition ends with a display of buckets of pearls mass-produced in China. It seems that Kokichi Mikimoto’s ambition to adorn the necks of all the women in the world with pearls is finally achievable.

Published Thu, 14 Nov 2013 15:45:00 GMT

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