Pearls get pride of place at Beijing show
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-