Monday 6 January 2014

Pearls Exhibition, Victoria and Albert Museum

One of my earliest memories of the V&A is the incredible 2002 Tiaras exhibition. Darkened rooms housed glittering jewels, from your classic diamonds to your exotic rubies and emeralds. That display has always stuck with me, and with that in mind, I was sure their Pearls exhibition wasn’t going to disappoint.

The exhibition starts with some stunning x-ray prints of pearls, explaining exactly how they are formed. In case you didn’t know, the theory that a pearl is made from a grain of sand is actually a myth. Natural saltwater pearls are formed with the intrusion of a parasite (usually a worm or a piece of sponge) which produces nacre (or mother-of-pearl) in the shell’s mantle. The parasite will then form a cyst over which the nacre grows. Pearls have been sought after and admired for thousands of years, and would have once been a key feature in cabinets of curiosities all over the world. The exhibition has some of these itself, and therefore introduces its visitors to a whole range of varieties of pearl from all kinds of shells. My favourites had to be the Horse Conch pearl, which was deep red in colour, and used later in the exhibition to make some incredible jewellery, and the orange Indian Volute pearl, the likes of which I had never seen before.

One fascinating part of the exhibition took us through the process of fishing for pearls. An ancient process from Qatar, which came to an end in the mid 20th Century, involved divers collecting the pearls, weighing them using agate weights, and then sorting them into sizes using specially designed sieves. After gaining a full understanding of the growth of a pearl, it was time to see some jaw-dropping jewellery.

The displays range from ancient to modern, using both traditional seawater pearls, and beautiful baroque pearls too (this is a non-spherical pearl, the irregular shape often being incorporated into the design of the jewellery). Early on we see the Barbor Jewel. According to the family, the jewel was made for William Barbor, to commemorate his escape from the stake in 1558, due to the accession of Elizabeth I. However, the enamelling on the jewel has been dated to 1615-25… Still, it’s a great story, and a gorgeous piece. Other traditional, though later jewellery includes Queen Victoria’s Lover’s Eye, her pocket watch, and Princess Alexandra’s 1863 Dagmar Necklace, made from 118 pearls and 2,000 diamonds. It can be worn as one, or split up into earrings too.

As for the Baroque pearl pieces - wow. In particular, I should really mention the Forget-Me-Not Tiara, The Hope Pearl (if one of world's largest pearls isn't enough, why not stick a crown on top of it?) and the magnificent Pearl of Asia. At 76mm high, this pearl IS the largest in the world, and the piece includes jadeite and a HUGE pink sapphire. If that wasn't enough, it was also a present from Indian Emperor Shah Jahan (Mr Taj Mahal) to his wife, and then passed through Persia to China's Emperor Ch'ien-lung, who was buried with it in 1799! Luckily, in a peculiar sort of way, grave robbers stole the Pearl of Asia in 1900, it then resurfaced in Hong Kong, and eventually settled in a private collection in Paris.

At the end of the exhibition visitors are introduced to Mikimoto, and the process of cultured pearls. One staggering piece of jewellery from Mikimoto is the "Journey of 5000 Pearls", a scarf which was produced in 2005 and took years to sort pearls of the exact same size, colour, lustre and surface perfection. Other examples of modern pearl jewellery were Yoko's stunning Girandola, Mezza Luna, Carnevale and Amalfi series. I loved the incorporation of colour gradation, again, a technique I have never seen before.

If my image links simply aren't enough, get yourself down to the V&A to see the Pearl exhibition before it closes on the 19th. Best part is, there's lots on offer in the shop for you to take home with you (sadly, the Pearl of Asia will have to stay where it is). 

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