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Exhibition at London's Victoria & Albert Museum reveals unglamorous history of pearls
The Hanover tiara, worn by both wives of Prince Johann Georg of Saxony, is displayed in the V&A's "Pearls" exhibition in west London on September 18, 2013. Running from September 21, 2013 to January 19, 2014, the exhibition includes items of jewellery worn by aristocracy and celebrities as well as explaining the science behind their creation. AFP PHOTO / LEON NEAL.

LONDON.- A pearl-drop earring worn by Charles I at his execution in 1649, magnificent pearl tiaras worn by European nobility and a necklace of cultured pearls given to Marilyn Monroe by Joe DiMaggio in 1954 are among the incredible array of jewels and other objects on display in a new exhibition at the V&A. Organised in partnership with the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA), the exhibition explores the history of pearls from the early Roman Empire to the present, and is a highlight event of the Qatar UK 2013 Year of Culture.

On display are over 200 pieces of jewellery and works of art showcasing the extraordinary variety of colour and shape of natural and cultured pearls. The exhibition examines how pearls have been employed over centuries in both East and West as a symbol of status and wealth, how tastes vary in different cultures as well as the changing designs of jewellery with pearls.

The exhibition begins with an insight into the natural history of pearls showcased by a rare collection of molluscs from the Qatar Museums Authority and the pearl-fishing trade from across the Arabian Gulf to Europe and Asia, since Antiquity. A magnificent selection of natural pearls from the Gulf demonstrates how Gulf pearls have long been some of the most desirable and valuable in the world. The opening section also reveals the often dangerous working methods of pearl divers and shows the trading practices of pearl merchants in the Gulf, together with examples of equipment required for weighing and valuing pearls. Examples of early experiments in producing cultured pearls attempted in the 18th century by Carl Linnaeus are shown with scientific instruments which were used in the first half of the 20th century to distinguish between the natural and the cultured pearl.

The central focus of the exhibition chronicles the representation of pearls in jewellery through history, showcasing Ancient Roman jewels made as early as the 1st century AD and takes the exhibition up to date with contemporary work made by designers practising today. Through Antiquity myths and legends surrounded the pearl and early examples of Roman and Byzantine jewellery show how they were used as a sign of power and an indicator of rank in society. In Medieval times pearls were transformed from a symbol of luxury and ostentation into a Christian symbol representing purity and chastity, as represented by the Hylle Jewel with the scene of the Annunciation.

During the Renaissance, as Europe experienced a period of affluence, pearls began to be used extravagantly in jewellery and featured prominently in a new genre of portrait painting as a mark of extreme authority and wealth. On display are paintings and portrait miniatures featuring nobles, courtiers and affluent merchants of society, adorned with pearls. Other highlights from the 1600s include ‘Queen Mary II’ pearls (1662 -1694) as well as examples of irregular and unusual-shaped Baroque pearls forming striking jewellery designs.

The fascination with pearls continued in the 18th century. Celebrities of the day including Marie-Antoinette, her mother the Empress Maria Theresa, Empress Catherine the Great of Russia and Queen Charlotte, wore opulent pearls either in swags or as multiple strands and chokers, as seen in the portrait miniature of Queen Charlotte (1781). However, wearing jewellery was not restricted to women; men of distinction also wore jewels and accessories. On show are a set of buttons finely enamelled and framed with pearls worn by George III (1780).

In Victorian times pearls often had symbolic meanings and were found in sentimental jewels, or as naturalistic motifs with allegorical content. Examples featured include the so-called ‘Dagmar necklace’ gifted to Princess Alexandra when she married the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, in 1863 and a pendant locket with black pearl commemorating Prince Albert (1862).

Delicate compositions of Art Nouveau jewels sparsely decorated with pearls contrast with the opulent application of pearls in fashionable sautoirs of the 1920s or a three-stranded Cartier necklace with Gulf pearls designed in the 1930s. An Art Deco brooch by Jean Fouquet (1937) was in its period as innovative as the contemporary designs of the Munich jeweller Stefan Hemmerle with rare melo pearls (2011). The figurative creations of Geoffrey Rowlandson (1999) and the complex use of pearls in Sam Tho Duong’s necklace (2011) illustrate the diversity of contemporary jewellery designs with pearls.

An Icon with Virgin and Child decorated with Russian freshwater pearls (1886), an Imperial Robe from China studded with pearls (c. 1870 – 1911) and a Chinese wedding head-dress (1800-1900) examine the significance of pearls in the Far East. They are shown alongside tiaras formerly belonging to the British and European high nobility, such as the Rosebery pearl and diamond Tiara (1878), as well pieces worn by celebrities of today, including Elizabeth Taylor’s Bulgari pearl-drop pendant earrings (1972).

The exhibition also follows the invention of the cultured pearl and its production on an industrial scale initiated by Kokichi Mikimoto in Japan. He succeeded in developing the necessary technology to establish ways of making pearls affordable for every woman to wear. Today in East Asia and the South Seas an impressive variety of cultured pearls are found in unusual colours.

The jewellery and works of art are drawn from the V&A and QMA’s collections, alongside objects from British collections including Tate Britain, the British Museum and the Royal Collection and established jewellery houses such as Mikimoto, Tiffany & Co, Bulgari, Cartier, Chaumet, René Lalique and YOKO London.

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