Pearls – Wonders of Nature from Sea to Scientific Scrutiny


Brooch, natural brown pearls set in platinum and diamonds France, 1900 © Albion Art courtesy V & A Museum, London

PEARLS, an exhibition held at London in 2013 at the Victoria & Albert (V&A) London was co-curated by independent jewellery historian and curator Beatriz Chador-Sampson in collaboration with Hubert Bari, Director of the Pearl and Jewellery Museum at the Qatar Museum Authority, which is currently under the leadership of its Chairperson, H.E. Sheikha Al Mayassa.

Gold hair ornament, set with natural pearls, emeralds and sapphiews Roman, 3rd Century AD  © The Trustees of the British Museum

In the Arabian Gulf demand for natural pearls reached unprecedented heights and they were much sought after by the great jewellery houses of Europe during the nineteenth century, when there was a fashion for all things ‘oriental’.

How pearls are actually produced has been a continuing source of curiosity and scientific scrutiny for centuries.

In principle any mollusc with a shell attached can create a pearl, from a giant clam to a tiny land snail.

Divers fished for Pearls in the Arabian Gulf from as early as the 1st Millennium before the Christ Event, until the decline of the trade by the mid twentieth  century.

Frustratingly some 2000 oyster shells often needed to be opened before a single beautiful natural pearl was found under normal circumstances. Everything changed as pearls became far more readily when man realised that nature could be assisted.

Saltwater pearls are formed by the intrusion of a parasite such as a worm or foreign object into the shell’s mantle, which then forms a cyst, over which the nacre (mother-of-pearl) grows. A pearl farmer was able to artificially insert the ‘parasite’ under controlled conditions

Melo and brown diamond earrings, made and designed by Hemmerle, Munich, Germany, 2001, rose gold, red gold, pave-set fancy brown diamonds, melo pearl bouton and melo pearl drop. Private Collection. Courtesy Hemmerle

Melo and brown diamond earrings, made and designed by Hemmerle, Munich, Germany, 2001, rose gold, red gold, pave-set fancy brown diamonds, melo pearl bouton and melo pearl drop. Private Collection. Courtesy Hemmerle

The variety of colours and shapes of pearls produced today has become brilliantly diverse and they range from the exotic pink conch pearl, to the brown and black pearl and the blue-green abalone pearl. Then there is the Melo pearl, with its wonderful orange hues.

The jewellery and works of art on show at the V&A were showcased alongside a selection of objects from renowned British collections including Tate Britain, the British Museum and the Royal Collection. The established jewellery houses of Bulgari, Cartier, Chaumet and René Lalique, Mikimoto, Tiffany & Co and YOKO London also contributed.

It was the ancient Chinese who discovered how to create a blister pearl by inserting an object into the oyster and during the eighteenth century in Europe, the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus experimented in a similar way.

Lady Rosebery’s pearl and diamond tiara London c.1878 The Qatar Museums Authority Collection According to some stories however, it was a British Biologist William Saville-Kent who first developed the process to produce ‘cultured pearls’ in Australia.

They were reputedly then introduced into Japan by Tokichi Nishikawa (who married the daughter of Mikimoto) and Tatsuhei Mise. Tokichi was granted a patent to commercially farm pearls in Japan in 1916. However the first commercial crop as not successfully produced until 1928.

By the 1950s cultured pearls had conquered the jewellery market and Mikimoto’s dream ‘to adorn the necks of all the women of the world with pearls’ seemingly became a reality.

Historically by the first century AD, jewellery from all around the Mediterranean world ports of cities brimmed and overflowed with symbolism.

This was the period when the pearl became a prized possession, a miracle delivered by nature to adorn your person and to showcase your status and rank in society.

Empress Josephine's Cameo Diadem of Lapis cameos and delicate pearls set in gold. The centre cameo is a portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte

Empress Josephine’s Cameo Diadem of Lapis cameos and delicate pearls set in gold. The centre cameo is a portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte

The great centres for jewellery manufacture in the Roman world, outside Rome itself, were at Antioch and Alexandria and according to that great documenter of Roman times, Pliny the Elder ‘People nowadays go to buy clothes in China, look for pearls in the depth of the Red Sea and emeralds in the bowels of the earth…

There is a certain amount of written evidence, notably on materials and techniques, in the surviving documents of Pliny the Elder, which is backed up by the archaeological evidence of incredible mummy portraits found at Hawara in Egypt by British archaeologist Sir William Flinders Petrie (1853-1942).

Pair of earrings Roman Empire (Egypt) AD 100-200 Gold and pearls Museum no. M.10 & A-1966 courtesy © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pliny, in his ‘Natural History’ had a great deal to say about gemstones, especially pearls.

He observed ‘first and therefore the topmost rank among all things of price is held by pearls’. He seemed sure they had been conceived and had a greater connection with the ‘sky than the sea’, honouring them as being divine.

One of the great aspects of Roman Jewellery was the visual depiction of ‘colour’, which gained importance influenced by the highly polychrome jewellery of ancient Egypt, Greece and that from Etruria, the city founded by the Etruscans in the north of what we now know as Italy.

‘Grand Jeté’ brooch Made and designed by Geoffrey Rowlandson (born 1931) London 1999 18 carat gold, brilliant-cut diamonds and cultured baroque pearls Private Collection © Geoffrey Rowlandson

In ancient Greece the pearl was an attribute of the Goddess Aphrodite, whose divine duty was to make love and inspire others to do so. She arose from the sea foam to walk ashore at Cyprus and so having a pearl as one of her symbols seems highly appropriate.

According to Roman historian Suetonius (c69 – after 122) in his biography of Julius Caesar ‘Although Caesar’s rallying Rome with the prospect of pearls in Britain may well have been a shrewd strategy to win support for his campaign.”. While gold was the primary means for adornment in Roman times, to satisfy the citizen’s of Rome’s lust for the extravagant, pearls were used alongside its hardest stones, diamonds, sapphires and emeralds in jewellery (jewelry) giving a white lustrous glow.

Imperial Court Robe China Qing dynasty, about 1870-1911 Embroidered silk, silk and gold threads, corals and pearls Museum no. T.253-1967 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Merchants of China travelled to India in European medieval times to acquire the highly prized natural pearls from the Gulf, while at the same time Arab merchants expanded their trade network to include South East Asia. This influential trade reached its pinnacle from 1850 – 1930.

During the fourteenth century in Europe pearls were all about purity and chastity for Christians, especially when set with other rubies, diamonds and emeralds into a cross. It all began to change however during the Italian Renaissance.

Sandro Botticelli, 1486, courtesy Uffizi Museum, Florence

Image of the Renaissance: Aphrodite (Venus) rising from the sea by Sandro Botticelli, 1486, courtesy Uffizi Museum, Florence

Portraits reveal that nobles and affluent merchants completely adorned their person with pearls as their symbolism became increasingly secular.

Elizabeth 1 wearing her red jacket encrusted with pearls

Elizabeth 1 of England had some of the most amazing pearls and in her age they were more valuable than diamonds. At her coronation, which took place on a crisp winter morning with just a hint of snow in the air, ‘she wore her hair as her mother had done, unbraided… hanging loosely about her shoulders’.

She was clothed in a gown made from one of the extraordinary textiles of the time, known as the cloth of gold, holding a bejewelled orb and sceptre.

Her gown was trimmed with ermine, symbolic of her purity, as were the pearls in her crown.

Erik XIV of Sweden declared he would ‘rush through armies of foes to protect her’ and had a superb portrait of her painted for his personal pleasure. In it, sewn to her very chic red coat and hat are clusters of gems and pearls while the sleeves of her stylish jacket were thickly encrusted with pearls all the way up to the elbows.

She was given a great deal of jewellery as a ‘love gift’, however none more acceptable to her than that from her favourite the Earl of Leicester. In the so-called Armada portrait she wears the incredible strings of natural pearls that he gave to her in love and friendship.

Charles 1 Pearl Earring

King Charles 1 wearing his pearl earring

Other highlights from the 1600s will include ‘Queen Mary II’ pearls (1662 -1694) as well as examples of irregular and unusual-shaped Baroque pearls forming striking jewellery designs. King Charles 1 of England was known to have loved pearls and interestingly wore one to his execution in 1649.

Barbara Palmer, 1st Duchess Cleveland the most notorious mistress of Charles II wearing her perfectly matched pearls. Portrait by Sir Peter Lely

During the reign of his son Charles II (1630-1685), luscious, lascivious and lovely ladies, many of whom were well known to Charles, always wore pearls. They were indeed the essential accessories for the loose state of ‘undress’ they were generally seen disported in.

Court etiquette demanded that only someone of a superior rank could receive a person of lower rank when in a state of undress. By way of contrast a person of inferior rank had to be fully and formally attired when attending a person of superior rank. Wearing undress with your pearls in a portrait underlined the fact the sitter belonged to an exclusive group of superior people.

During the eighteenth century France’s Queen Marie-Antoinette, her mother the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, Empress Catherine the Great of Russia and England’s Queen Charlotte all wore opulent pearls either in swags or as multiple strands and chokers

Madame Juliette Recamier (1777 – 1849) ‘walked like a goddess on the clouds and her voice thrilled the senses’. In the early nineteenth century she dressed in a cloud of diaphanous white mousseline, never wore diamonds only pearls, and like other ladies of her rank, she appealed strongly to men’s romantic sensibilities.

Bodice ornament Spain About 1670 Gold filigree with freshwater pearls Collection of Deborah Elvira Photo © Martin Vellón

The pearls on display were outstanding and included one fabulous bodice ornament; a sensational piece encrusted with freshwater pearls that was made in Spain around 1670. Set into gold filigree, enormous interest has been achieved by the variety of the sizes and shapes of pearls that make up this wonderful jewel.

Then there is 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 the death of Prince Albert (1862).


Pearls: Different shapes and colours

Delicate compositions of jewels in the sinuous writhing Art Nouveau style, which derived from a love of nature, were sparsely decorated with pearls.

They contrast dramatically with the opulent application of pearls in fashionable and much favoured sautoirs, or long necklace of the 1920’s, which were often decorated with a tassel or pendant in different materials.

The superb three-stranded Cartier necklace made of natural Gulf pearls designed in the 1930s and a brooch by the jewellery firm of Fouquet (1937) in the Art Deco style will take many people’s breath away.

Jean Fouquet (1899-1961) was a member of the famous French family producing jewellery including Alphonse Fouquet 1828-1911 and Georges Fouquet 1862-1957.

They all were in their time as innovative as the contemporary designs of the Munich jeweller Stefan Hemmerle with his rare and natural Melo pearls, which are produced by a marine snail, (not farmed) that is found in the waters of the South China Sea, as far south and west to Singapore and the Andaman Sea. (2011).

All attempts so far to cultivate them have failed.

Frozen, silver nylon, freshwater pearls 2011 Sam Tho Duong 746 KB Photo © Petra Jaschke

Then there are the figurative creations of Geoffrey Rowlandson (1999) and the complex use of pearls in Sam Tho Duong’s stunning contemporary necklace.

With their beauty and allure PEARLS continue to attract a loyal following and cause a re-evaluation of their role in society, which has been significant now for over a thousand years.

While fashion trends may ebb and flow Pearls have committed followers who remain loyal and in love with these amazing gifts from nature.

The people of Qatar have a great wealth of culture and heritage to share as they contribute to helping us all imagine the modern world.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013 – 2018

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