Pearls

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Pearls Script: Zoë Wanamaker

A natural pearl is a miraculous creation of nature. In contrast to all myths of their formation – that they are the tears of the Gods, for instance – the natural pearl is created through the intrusion of a parasite, worm, or the result of damage by outside influences. Any mollusc can produce a pearl, resulting in an astonishing variety of shapes and colours – such as these rare specimens from the QatarMuseum Authority’s superb collection.

Natural pearls were fished in the Arabian Gulf, along the coast of Qatarand Bahrain, from about 1000 BC until around the mid 20th century, and the procedure has remained unchanged. The diver’s equipment was basic: a nose-clip, leather sheaths to protect the hands and two ropes: one attached to a net basket for collecting the oysters, the second to a stone weighing about seven kilograms and used to speed up descent.

The trade of natural pearls from the Arabian Gulfwas far-reaching, as they were objects of desire among the ruling monarchs of Europe, Indiaand China. Prices were determined by quality based on shape, size, lustre and colour. In the Gulf, pearl merchants displayed pearls on a red cloth, under which the price was discussed in a special way by a touch of the fingers, well away from the view of competitors.

Pearls were rare and valuable, and have been worn as a symbol of authority and social status through the ages. Myths and superstitious beliefs surrounded pearls, from embodying purity to bringing good luck in marriage, or to symbolise tears and misfortune. The creation of the pearl associated with the birth of Aphrodite (or Venus), the goddess of love and beauty, has made the pearl a symbol of seductiveness and femininity to the present day.

In Roman times, pearls were a desirable luxury. The Roman Historian, Pliny the Elder, complained about the ‘new rich’ and their increasing fashion for pearls. The most precious and valuable were often combined with emeralds. Pliny claimed, ‘Women spend more money on their ears in pearl earrings, than on any other part of their person’.

Christian symbols appeared in jewellery during the 5th century when the Christian cross became fashionable. By the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance, pearls became symbolic of Christ. The creation of the pearl was associated with the Virgin Mary’s miraculous conception of the Christ Child. Its symbolism was of purity and perfection.

Royals and nobles competed for large and beautiful pearls and wore them as a sign of political power and prosperity. Catherine de Medici wore pearls in abundance as an expression of her status as Queen. Her pearls, bequeathed to Mary Queen of Scots, became a symbol of rivalry, as these were sold by Mary’s Scottish opponents to Elizabeth I.

New dress fashions in pastel shades of satin were a perfect backdrop to pearls worn in abundance, featured not only around the neck but also in bodice ornaments. Queen Mary II wore her pearls draped across her décolleté with a diamond. Pearls symbolised virtuous femininity, marital fidelity and fertility, often appearing in bridal portraits.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, pearls remained highly fashionable. They were often worn as chokers; and conveyed deep-rooted and intimate messages of love and grief. Pearl jewellery was also associated with childhood, marriage and death. Pearl decorative borders symbolised purity, innocence or humility, while in mourning jewellery, pearls signified tears of sadness.

The 19th century was a period of aristocratic ostentation and grandeur. Queen Victoria and Empress Eugenie of France influenced international fashions and shared a passion for pearls and jewels. Magnificent tiaras of rare pearls and diamonds were worn by European aristocracy to dazzle and impress at sumptuous balls and grand occasions.

The 1920s were characterised by informal dress codes and the lavish lifestyles of the elite. Pearl necklaces ranged from the modest choker to the long sautoirs hanging down to the waist. Styles were influenced by the exotic, and by the modernist movement, which allowed women to apply make-up in public, thus the vanity case became a fashionable accessory.

In 18th and 19th century China and India, ostentatious displays of pearls formed an integral part of the regalia of ruling monarchs. In Europe such opulence seemed unimaginable. During this period, formal wear at the Indian and Nepalese Courts was based on Western styles mixed with Eastern splendour. Elaborate pearl embroidery demonstrated the wealth of the owner.

In the 1930s, Coco Chanel promoted the fashion for pearls, as did the First Lady, Jackie Kennedy, in the 1960s, and both combined cultured and imitation pearls. The screen goddesses of Hollywood movies upheld the glamour of pearls. Elizabeth Taylor preferred splendid jewels with natural pearls, while Marilyn Monroe wore a modest necklace of cultured pearls from Mikimoto in her private life.

There had been several attempts to create pearls by human intervention. Kōkichi Mikimoto remains the figure primarily associated with the invention and mass-production of the cultured pearl. Mikimoto conquered the world markets, and his dream ‘to adorn the necks of all the women of the world with pearls’ became a reality.

Pearls are timeless jewels. The lustre and beauty of them have been highly valued and continue to fascinate us. It may seem as if everything has already been achieved using pearls – from the natural and cultured to simulated pearls, but it remains to be seen what the future will bring. Today the aesthetics in pearl jewellery is boundless and the variety of pearls remarkable.

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“A natural pearl is a miraculous creation of nature…” – so begins Zoë Wanamaker in our film, which has been made to coincide with the V&A exhibition, ‘Pearls’. The film guides us through history, beginning at 1,000 BC, and taking into account Antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Victorian era, the jazz age, the importance of pearls in Chinese and Indian history, and even the revolutionary cultured pearls created by Kōkichi Mikimoto.

"A natural pearl is a miraculous creation of nature…" – so begins Zoë Wanamaker...