The V&A’s fall exhibition is titled simply Pearls: no more is needed to evoke the most elegant of jewels. From the neck of our grandmothers to Audrey Hepburn’s Breakfast at Tiffany, pearls are truly timeless. Handed down from a generation to the next, they defy change with their candid sheen. Yet, for all its dreamy atmosphere, the V&A’s exhibition reveals that the most coveted of jewels has a long and adventurous history.
The exhibition’s portrayal of the history of pearls begins – perhaps too Eurocentrically – with the tradition of the ‘cabinet of curiosities,’ the encyclopaedic microcosms constructed by early modern princes and scholars. Reflecting man’s privileged place in God’s creation, the cabinets juxtaposed the creations of art and nature, with one always trying to outdo the other in a battle of conceits. Fished from the seas yet selected and mounted with matchless artistry, pearls captured the transition of human creation into divine nature. They were irresistible, as shown in Jeanne de Marigny’s portrait, where all attention goes to her pear-lined satin dress.
Yet there is more to the ‘cabinet of curiosity’ than the wonders of 17th century haute couture. Emphasised in the flimsy boundary between nature and culture, this first display sets the scene for scientific imagining. Again and again the exhibition uses the constructed languages of X-rays and microscopes to reveal what exactly is in the ‘nature’ of a pearl.
If science reveals the dazzling colours hidden in the pearls’ apparent whiteness, only history can explain their unique value. A grainy video reveals early 20th century divers descending to the bottom of the sea with no breathing equipment but for the air in their lungs. In its everyday simplicity, an old nose clip nearby is a poignant reminder of the dangers and delusions of their lives. Sitting on the deck with their skin hardened by salt, the fishermen would relentlessly open the hundreds of shells they had collected, rarely finding a pearl worth selling.
Born of sea-foam, pearls would join the international trade which travelled from Saudi Arabia to India, via Bahrain and Qatar. These strings were gathered in Bombay, only to break loose again, towards Europe and China. The pearl was a truly international craze, a theme which the V&A’s expansive collection is best suited to pursue. This is further emphasised through the fact that the exhibition is a collaboration with the Qatar Museum Authority. Thus, visitors encounter both the history of pearls and their cultural geography – from the Gulf’s seabed to the contemporary London museum.
This emphasis on geography and history is best reflected in the wise choice of display cases. The exhibition begins with natural marvels in ancient cabinets of curiosities, and continues with 19th century safes that enshrine treasures from Renaissance to Art Nouveau. On the safes, semi-effaced lettering spells ‘Singapore,’ ‘Hamburg,’ and ‘Altona’ – scraps of a lively trade which exude a fascinating aura. Yet, their secrets are locked well shut: unfortunately, the museum lost the opportunity to feed the visitors’ curiosity, for no further information is given regarding the safes’ provenance.
As centuries go by and the show progresses, visitors encounter a variety of different designs. Renaissance drawings characterised by typical three pearls pendants give way to George III’s cobalt blue coat buttons, while the black-dyed pearls of an ever-mourning Queen Victoria metamorphose in the flowers and insects of Lalique’s Art Nouveau designs. The only constant is the soaring price of natural pearls, which became increasingly rare as American seabeds turned into deserts due to excessive fishing.
Intensifying market demand invited attempts to produce cultured pearls. The exhibition’s last section concentrates on this modern history of scientific and artistic innovation. In 1907, Japanese experiments led to the production of the first cultured spherical pearl. The new pearl was so perfect that it could only be differentiated from a natural pearl with the use of an endoscope. Taking up earlier experiments, Kokichi Maimoto’s firm soon produced an entire scarf out of pearls, a feat of jewellery aptly titled Journey of 5000 Pearls.
Despite the historical importance of Maimoto’s pieces, pearls are traditionally white and axiomatically spherical in his production. However pearls can have many different colours, influenced by the type and flesh of the producing mollusc. Most prized, dark Tahitian pearls are the starting point for Yoko/EuroPearls’ baroque creations, with coloured beads that suggest narrative plots from exotic places. Thus, pearls are shown to suddenly depart from a tradition of conspicuous understatement; a brief section on contemporary design in the exhibition readdresses the balance with the purity of modernist designs.
The V&A’s exhibition draws to an end with an enfilade of famous designers. Slightly out of step with the long history that preceded them, this section somewhat baffles the visitor, revealing a high-end market so luxurious as to deserve a place within the museum, yet so colourful as to shed doubt on the authentic value of the materials. At the very end of the exit corridor, visitors are faced with the breathtaking spectacle of buckets full of pearls. But this is not the luscious re-creation of an emperor’s treasure. Rather, the viewer is faced with a grim snapshot of low quality mass production. For if the long history of treasured pearls is all on show at the V&A, their future seems doomed to be cheap.