Jewelry Exhibits

Pearls Exhibition at London’s V&A Museum

Pearls V&A

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.

Pearls

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

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

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

Pearls and pearl necklaces from the Arabian Gulf
Reproduction of original photograph
The Arabian Gulf
20th century
© 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

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,

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

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.

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.

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

Ash Wednesday (1973) Directed by Larry Peerce Shown: Elizabeth Taylor

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.

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.

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    Jennifer
    September 10, 2013 at 2:34 pm

    Bravo – beautifully done… Enjoyed the read!

  • Reply
    London Entertainment
    September 11, 2013 at 6:50 am

    […] Pearls Exhibition at London's V&A Museum | Jewels du Jour http://www.jewelsdujour.com/Pearls Exhibition at London's V&A Museum September 10, 2013Jewelry Exhibits0 Comments. Later this month, London's V&A Museum in collaboration with Qatar Museums Authority will present “Pearls“, an exhibition that highlights the … […]

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