We all know that
diamonds are a girl’s best friend, but in the past there was another type of
jewel which was just as highly prized – pearls.
I recently went to
see an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum here in London which was dedicated
to pearls and told the story of this precious natural phenomenon through the
ages. I found it absolutely fascinating!
Never having given it
much thought, I had always believed that pearls came mostly from the Far
East. I was therefore surprised to find
that in the past, the majority of them originated in and around Qatar and the
Arabian Gulf. The pearl fisheries there
have existed for thousands of years apparently and pearls from that region made
their way to Egypt, Rome and the rest of Europe even in ancient times. The next largest supply came from between
southern India and Ceylon. Finding them
was hard work as only one in every 2,000 oysters actually has a pearl inside
Another surprise for
me was the fact that pearls are not formed from grains of sand that have
happened to enter an oyster. That is
just a myth and never happens. Instead,
it is usually parasites of some sort that trigger the beginnings of a pearl. Cultured pearls, pioneered by the Japanese
businessman Kokichi Mikimoto, are not formed from sand either, but by a
different and rather complicated technique that involves a tiny piece ‘donated’
by another oyster. (This was not
developed until the early 20th century.)
Pearls have a natural
sheen and, unlike precious stones, don’t need to be polished in any way. (I’ve been told that the more you wear them,
the shinier they become, presumably because of being in proximity to the wearer’s
skin.) The exhibition showed that even
the ones that were not perfect were put to good use by jewellery makers. Some weirdly shaped ones formed for example
the torso of a fish or insect and were made into a brooch or pendant using a
gold or silver setting. One had even
been made into a miniature Statue of Liberty!
They come in lots of different colours too – grey, pink, black and brown
are just some of the available shades – but for me, the white ones are the most
Many women wore them
as symbols of purity and virginity.
Owning vast quantities of pearls (and wearing an awful lot of them all
at once, either as jewellery or sewn onto garments) was also a symbol of power and
riches. There were some magnificent
necklaces, tiaras, brooches and other kinds of jewellery on display at the
exhibition and the most fascinating were those with a known provenance – for
example, there was a single pearl earring which had apparently been worn by
King Charles I at his execution!
Pearls go in and out
of fashion, but one thing never changes – their incredible beauty. The warm, creamy lustre can’t be improved
upon (although a setting of diamonds makes them shine even more!) and no matter
what type of jewellery is made out of these natural miracles, they can be
guaranteed to enhance the wearer’s outfit.
I’m sure they will continue to be appreciated for centuries to come.
Labels: jewellery, Mikimoto, Pearls, Victoria & Albert Museum