Later this month, London’s V&A Museum in collaboration with Qatar Museums Authority will present “Pearls“, an exhibition that highlights the history of pearls, from antiquity to present day. Starting September 21st through January 19th, 2014, over 200 pieces of jewelry and objets d’art will be on display at the museum, taking visitors on an enlightening and eye-opening journey through the pearl’s illustrious history and representation in jewelry.
Photo courtesy of the V&A Museum
The overarching exhibition explores nearly everything about the pearl, from pearl fishing and trading in the Arabian Gulf to examining natural and cultured pearls used in jewelry through the ages.
A rare selection of natural pearls from the Qatar Museums Authority Collection
Photo © Creutz.
As early as the first millennium BC until the trade’s decline by mid 20th century, pearls have been fished from the Gulf by divers equipped with the most basic means: a loin cloth, nose clip of tortoiseshell or wood and a leather sheath to hold the oysters. The exhaustive efforts of twelve-plus hour days diving as deep as 22 meters are easily forgotten by the time a magnificent necklace strung with perfectly graduated pearls is completely assembled. To shed more light on the extreme rarity of a strand of natural pearls, more than 2000 oyster shells need to be opened before finding a single, perfectly round beautiful pearl.
Pearl divers holding onto the rope attached to the collecting baskets, reproduction of original photograph. © Qatar News Agency Archives
For centuries trade has played an important role for countries near the Arabian Gulf, and by the early 19th century the area was the major global supplier of natural pearls. From 1850 to 1930, the golden age of Gulf pearls reined in this region until the discovery of oil in the early 20th century. Together, the damaging effects of the oil industry which destroyed the fragile oyster beds and the highly profitable opportunities that lured divers out of the waters and onto oil rigs ended the Gulf’s pearling prosperity.
Pearls and pearl necklaces from the Arabian Gulf
Reproduction of original photograph
The Arabian Gulf
© Hussain Alfardan Archives
In jewelry, pearls have been the favorite gem of ancient Romans and European royals, an enduring symbol of wealth and status. Crowns and other regalia embellished with pearls served to illustrate a ruler’s dynastic authority as well as the prosperity of his land. Over time, aristocratic women and emerging Hollywood starlets, ladies of fortune and fame, would all come to embrace the pearl’s alluring, lustrous beauty, adorning themselves with pearl tiaras, sautoirs and elaborate brooches.
The Rosebery Pearl and Diamond Tiara, London, 1878, gold, silver, diamonds, natural bouton pearls and natural drop-shaped pearls. Qatar Museums Authority. Photo © Christie’s
Offering a complete view of the pearl’s significance throughout the world, examples of the use of pearls in Asia can be seen in examples that include Chinese Imperial Robes, ornate 19th century Chinese wedding head-dresses and richly embroidered coats from India circa 1890.
Head ornament from a wedding set, Qing dynasty, China, circa 1800–1911, in gilded bronze, with kingfisher feathers and natural pearls. The house in the centre, symbolic of the young couple, is flanked by two dragons. Qatar Museums Authority, Doha © Hubert Bari.
One segment of the exhibition aims to highlight the event that drastically changed the pearl industry in the 1920s, exploring the history of the cultured pearl and tracing its origins from the attempts of the ancient Chinese to the successes of Kokichi Mikimoto. Japanese Akoyas and other cultured pearl varieties from the South Sea, as well as their respective oysters who produce them, are examined to show how the pearl, a gem so rare and expensive only the very wealthy could afford it, came to the mass market during the 20th century.
Sash clip ‘Yaguruma’ (Wheels of Arrows) and box, Mikimoto, Japan, 1937, platinum, 18 carat white gold, cultured Akoya pearls, diamonds, sapphires and emeralds. © Mikimoto Pearl Island, Japan
As the final segment of the exhibition, pearls are examined during the second half of the 20th century and today’s world of contemporary jewelry. Modern-day designs of the 1960s and 1970s by designers such as Andrew Grima and jewels by present day designers like Yoko London and Hemmerle show how creatively, and beautifully, the pearl can be incorporated into jewelry in nearly endless ways. With such a rich history and prosperous future, pearls continue to be a true symbol of femininity and a timeless classic.
Hemmerle’s Tarantula brooch (1995), from the “Art of Nature” series. The body is made up of a 111.76ct dark brown conch pearl – one of the largest and rarest ever found – and 39.84ct natural coloured fancy shaped Umba sapphires. Photo courtesy of Hemmerle
Drawing pieces from several collections in addition to V&A’s and QMA’s, highlights of the exhibition include a bevy of noteworthy pearl jewels throughout time, including tiaras worn by European nobility, a Mikimoto pearl necklace that Joe DiMaggio gave to Marilyn Monroe in 1954, and a pair of pearl pendant earrings by Bulgari formerly the property of Elizabeth Taylor.
Mikimoto’s Marilyn Monroe strand of 39 cultivated Akoya pearls. This necklace was a gift to the star from her second husband, Joe DiMaggio. Photo courtesy of V&A Museum
Liz Taylor wearing her Bulgari pearl earrings in the film ‘Ash Wednesday’, 1973. © Paramount Pictures Photofest.
Pendant earrings by Bulgari Rome, 1972, with platinum, diamonds and natural pearls – formerly the property of Elizabeth Taylor. Qatar Museums Authority, Doha. Photo © Hubert Bari.
Having just finished the fascinating book Tears of Mermaids: The Secret Story of Pearls by Stephen Bloom this morning, I found it apropos to write about this upcoming exhibit that delves into world of these luminous orbs. For those of us who don’t have a trip planned for London anytime soon, please enjoy this album of selected highlights from the Pearls exhibition.
Abalone shell (Haliotis iris) with a mabe pearl in the shape of a worm New Zealand © Christian Creutz, photographer
Trapezium horse conch shell with pearl (Pleuroploca trapezium) Philippines © Christian Creutz, photographer
Chest belonging to a pearl dealer About 1920 Wood, brass, agates, paper and textile Hussain Alfardan Collection, Doha
Pair of earrings Roman Empire (Egypt) AD 100-200 Gold and pearls Museum no. M.10 & A-1966 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Gold hair ornament, set with natural pearls, emeralds and sapphires Roman, 3rd Century AD Photo courtesy of V&A Museum
Cross pendant Germany 1500-40 Gold, rubies and pearls Museum no. M.74-1953 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Pendant with standing ram, Spain or Spanish colonies, circa 1600, in gold, enamel, spinel and pearls from the Waddesdon Bequest, British Museum, London © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.
Bodice ornament Spain About 1670 Gold filigree with freshwater pearls Collection of Deborah Elvira Photo © Martin Vellón
Portrait of Jeanne de Marigny, attributed to Charles (1604-92) and Henri Beaubrun (1603-77), Paris, about 1650-60, oil on canvas. Museum no. 566-1882, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Earrings in gold with natural seed pearls and diamonds, France, circa 1795-1810. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Lover’s Eye brooch, England, 1800-1820, in gold, with pearls, diamonds and a painted miniature © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Necklace with natural pearls set in coloured gold, probably England, circa 1850. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Brooch with natural brown pearls set in platinum and diamonds, France, 1900. © Albion Art.
Bodice ornament in gold with enamel, turquoise, abalone pearl and mother-of-pearl by George Fouquet, Paris, circa 1900. On loan from the Sparkasse Pforheim Calw Art Foundation. Photo by Rudiger Floter © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2013
‘Forget-me-nots’ tiara Designed and made by Paul Gabriel Liénard (born 1849) Paris About 1905 Horn, gold, diamonds and pearls Qatar Museums Authority © Albion Art
Sash clip ‘Cherry Blossom’ Mikimoto Japan About 1910 15 carat gold coated with platinum, cultured half pearl, small natural pearls and diamonds © Mikimoto Pearl Island, Japan
Necklace with five graduated strands, Cartier, France, 1930-40, platinum, diamonds and natural Gulf pearls. Qatar Museums Authority. Photo © Sotheby’s
Brooch Made and designed by Friedrich Becker (1922-1997) Düsseldorf, Germany 1962 18 carat white gold, 96 natural pearls in varying shades RSV Collection © Frau Hilde Becker
‘Grand Jeté’ brooch Made and designed by Geoffrey Rowlandson (born 1931) London 1999 18 carat gold, brilliant-cut diamonds and cultured baroque pearls Private Collection © Geoffrey Rowlandson
Melo and brown diamond earrings, made and designed by Hemmerle, Munich, Germany, 2001, rose gold, red gold, pave-set fancy brown diamonds, melo pearl bouton and melo pearl drop. Private Collection. Courtesy Hemmerle
‘Frozen’ by artist Sam Tho Duong, silver nylon and freshwater pearls, 2011. Photo © Petra Jaschke.
‘Gothic’ choker Mikimoto Japan 2011 18 carat white gold, diamonds and Akoya pearls © Mikimoto Pearl Island, Japan
Snow White Wrist Piece ‘A Fusion of Winter Snow and Spring Flowers’ Made and designed by Nora Fok (born 1952) London 2012 3-D printed white plastic, cultured white pearls Private Collection © Frank Hills, photographer
Necklace from the Carnevale Collection, made by Yoko, London, 2013, 18 carat white gold, diamonds, natural colour pink and orange freshwater pearls, golden Indonesian South Sea and white Australian South Sea pearls, grey and blue Tahitian pearls. © Yoko London
Imperial Court Robe Qing dynasty, circa 1870-1911, crafted from embroidered silk, silk and gold threads, corals and pearls © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Icon with Virgin and Child Ivan Nikolaev Mnekin Moscow, Russia 1886 Gilded silver, painting on metal, enamel and Russian freshwater pearls Qatar Museums Authority Photo © Sotheby’s
Drawing of a Court Necklace worn by the Emperor China 1750-66 Ink and colour on silk Museum no. 827-1896 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London