Pearls: jewels of the ocean

For subtle radiance, symbolic power and pure beauty, it is hard to beat pearls. A new exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum showcases some stunning examples

Vermeer was captivated by their luminous essence; fashionable ladies in ancient Rome used them as a badge of status; Coco Chanel wore a strand around the neck to encapsulate her style of nonchalant chic; and Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher, wielded their lustre as an integral part of her visual armour. Through the ages, people have exploited the symbolic value of the pearl, which has associations ranging from seductiveness to purity, authority to celebrity.

There is something very unique about a pearl. Grains of sand changed - as if by magic - into jewels by oysters in the depths of the ocean. Fished since the first millennium BC, the pearls from the warm, shallow waters of the Arabian Gulf have long been regarded as the finest. By the early 19th century the region was the major global supplier of the precious jewels. A new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, in association with the Qatar Museums Authority, features hundreds of spectacular examples of the pearl’s beauty.

Early divers wore clips like clothes pegs over their nostrils and protective leather gloves. Working from sunrise to sunset, they dove to depths of more than 20 metres, without specialist equipment, to wrench oysters from the seabeds. The work was dangerous and arduous. Often, 2,000 oyster shells needed to be opened before revealing a single lovely pearl.

With pearl lovers strung out around the world, the global trade in pearls was historically fuelled by seafaring Arab merchants who travelled across the Indian Ocean, visiting ports along the coasts of India. Merchants from other countries, including China, travelled to India to acquire the valued Gulf pearls. By the mid-18th century other trading centres were established in Gulf ports such as Dubai, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi.

Always highly prized, the value of the pearl reached its peak in 1917 when a Cartier necklace made of two strings of stunning beads was valued at around US$1.2m. It was around this time that Japan perfected the art of the cultured pearl and flooded the market with these cheaper alternatives to the natural bounty. With entrepreneur Kōkichi Mikimoto’s dream ‘to adorn the necks of all the women of the world with pearls’, a reality, the natural variety lost their fabulous prices.

However, the pearl never lost its allure. Magnificent objects on display at the V&A include the singular pearl earring Charles I of England wore at his execution in 1649 and a necklace of cultured pearls gifted to Silver Screen icon Marilyn Monroe by Joe DiMaggio in 1954.

The glamour, status and wealth signalled by the pearl have been appreciated by the rich and powerful throughout time and across cultures. Also on show are early examples Roman ornaments, a 19th century Chinese wedding headdress, art deco opulence from the 1930s and the complex work of contemporary jewellery designers.

In amongst the fascinating chapters of human history on show here, the precious baubles glisten with their enigmatic beauty.