Pearls get pride of place at Bei­jing show

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE - By LIN QI linqi@chi­

They are daz­zling cre­ations of na­ture that can’t be cut or pol­ished. For cen­turies, royalty and aris­to­crats have pur­sued them to demon­strate power and so­cial rank. In mod­ern times, they adorn an ex­ten­sive pop­u­la­tion of women as an in­di­ca­tion of fash­ion tastes.

Their sym­bolic as­so­ci­a­tions vary from East to West, im­ply­ing ei­ther se­duc­tive­ness or pu­rity, best wishes for a mar­riage or grief over some­one’s death.

Pearls, boast­ing a smooth lus­ter, en­joy a global fas­ci­na­tion that tran­scends time and cul­tures. But a lot of peo­ple know very lit­tle about how the beads are formed, fished and farmed, and that they come in a va­ri­ety of colors and shapes.

The mys­tery sur­round­ing the gem is ex­plained at an on­go­ing ex­hi­bi­tion, Pearls: Trea­sures from the Seas and the Rivers, at the Na­tional Mu­seum of China in Bei­jing.

It in­cludes an­tique cab­i­nets, around 130 loose pearls, jew­elry and other dec­o­ra­tive ob­jects com­pris­ing pearls matched with gold, pre­cious stones and di­a­monds.

The ex­hibits are all from the Qatar Mu­se­ums, the Doha-based of­fi­cial cul­tural body that man­ages all the mu­se­ums in the coun­try.

The ex­hi­bi­tion is one of the high­lights of the Qatar China 2016 Year of Cul­ture, which in­cludes sev­eral ex­hi­bi­tions in both coun­tries.

The ex­hi­bi­tion trav­eled to the Vic­to­ria & Al­bert Mu­seum in Lon­don in 2013 and Is­tan­bul last year.

For thou­sands of years, peo­ple liv­ing along the Per­sian Gulf seashores, in­clud­ing in Qatar, de­pended on hunt­ing and trad­ing nat­u­ral pearls.

Ac­cord­ing to Hubert Bari, the ex­hi­bi­tion’s French cu­ra­tor, who holds a doc­tor­ate in min­er­al­ogy, 80 per­cent of the ob­jects on dis­play fea­ture nat­u­ral pearls.

The ex­hi­bi­tion first cor­rects the per­cep­tion that a pearl is formed around a grain of sand. Sev­eral shells on dis­play show that pearls mostly arise from a shell’s de­fense mech­a­nism when be­ing at­tacked by par­a­sites.

Vis­i­tors can also see an abalone shell from New Zealand in which an in­vad­ing worm, 6 cen­time­ters long, is trans­formed into a pearl, and an oys­ter shell from Indonesia that con­tains a fish pearl.

View­ers can see the fish bones with the help of X-ray scans.

To col­lect these nat­u­ral won­ders, divers re­lied on guts and ex­pe­ri­ence while brav­ing threats rang­ing from dan­ger­ous crea­tures and huge waves to the pos­si­bil­ity of drown­ing.

Old pho­tos on show re­veal the tra­di­tional way by which oys­ters were har­vested in the Per­sian Gulf, which once pro­duced some of the world’s finest nat­u­ral pearls.

To col­lect the pearls, divers held one rope that con­nected them with the pullers and another one at­tached to stones to ac­cel­er­ate de­scent.

They nor­mally searched the wa­ters for two min­utes at a time.

As pearls are formed by ac­ci­dent, the divers needed to open hun­dreds of shells to find a qual­ity pearl.

Bari says nat­u­ral pearls have been col­lected in the Per­sian Gulf’s wa­ters for more than 7,000 years.

“Dur­ing this time, ex­port­ing loose pearls was a ma­jor source of in­come for coun­tries such as Qatar, and they be­came a sig­nif­i­cant part of the re­gion’s rich her­itage and iden­tity.”

The re­gion’s pearls trade helped to link East­ern and West­ern cul­tures in the long course of his­tory.

“Both the mar­itime and land Silk Roads ended in the Gulf for one rea­son only ... so that pearls could be shipped to China, and so that China could sell Chi­nese ce­ram­ics to the Is­lamic world,” says Bari.

After be­ing taken out from the wa­ter, qual­ity pearls are set with met­als and gems in var­i­ous com­bi­na­tions.

The ob­jects at the Bei­jing show cel­e­brate jew­elry de­sign — from tra­di­tional to high-end avant-garde styles.

Many of the jew­elry pieces were once worn by celebri­ties.

A tiara fea­tur­ing pearls from the Gulf made around 1890 for­merly be­longed to Raine, Count­ess Spencer.

Her step­daugh­ter, Diana, also wore sev­eral oc­ca­sions.

A pair of nat­u­ral pearl ear­rings on dis­play were once owned by El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor— the late Hol­ly­wood star known for her fas­ci­na­tion with jew­elry.

An im­pres­sive ex­am­ple of con­tem­po­rary de­sign is also on show at the ex­hi­bi­tion — a neck­lace by Sam Tho Duong, a Viet­namese artist liv­ing in Ger­many.

He fixed hun­dreds of small pearls, cul­ti­vated in Chi­nese fresh­wa­ter, on sil­ver balls and ox­i­dized sil­ver sticks, to show ice crys­tals on tree branches.

At the ex­hi­bi­tion, the Na­tional Mu­seum of China has also dis­played one of its trea­sures as an ex­am­ple of Chi­nese aes­thet­ics in jew­elry de­sign.

Called the “Phoenix Coronet ”, it is dated to the Ming Dy­nasty (1368-1644) and was made for the Em press Xi ao du an.

It was un­earthed from the Din­gling Mau­soleum in Bei­jing in the 1950s.

It is made from lac­quered bam­boo and silk, and in­laid with more than 100 ru­bies and 5,000 pearls.

The Per­sian Gulf’s busi­ness died in the 20th cen­tury.

Then, over­har­vest­ing led to the de­ple­tion of oys­ter beds, putting the busi­ness in de­cline.

Nowa­days, nat­u­ral pearls are no longer fished and peo­ple farm pearls in seas and rivers. Princess it on pearl mid-

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