The MAGIC Cir­cle

Sym­bols of vir­gin­ity or tro­phies of ul­ti­mate ex­cess: no other jewel has the con­tra­dic­tory al­lure of the para­dox­i­cal pearl. By Han­nah Betts.

Harper’s Bazaar (Malaysia) - - Watches & Jewels -

What do Cleopa­tra, the Vir­gin Mary, El­iz­a­beth I, Marie An­toinette, Queen Vic­to­ria, Louise Brooks, Josephine Baker, Coco Chanel, Nancy Mit­ford, Holly Go­lightly, Grace Kelly, Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe, The Rocky Horror Pic­ture Show’s Dr. Frank-NFurter, Diana, Princess of Wales, and Mar­garet Thatcher have in com­mon? As par­lour games go, it’s a good one. That said, any­one gaz­ing at th­ese pages will have it im­me­di­ately; all were girls in pearls.

All of them would have rel­ished ‘Pearls’, an epic, lit­er­ally bril­liant ex­hi­bi­tion held at Lon­don’s Vic­to­ria & Al­bert Mu­seum, in con­junc­tion with the Qatar Mu­se­ums Au­thor­ity and co-cu­rated by the QMA’s Hu­bert Bari. As it demon­strates, the style his­tory of th­ese lu­mi­nous by-prod­ucts of the bod­ily func­tions of mol­luscs reaches back mil­len­nia. From baubles sported in Me­sopotamia (now North­ern Iraq) in about 2300BC to the de­mure or­na­ments of debu­tantes, man – and more specif­i­cally, woman – has al­ways been en­am­oured of the poetry of pearls.

The ex­hi­bi­tion of­fers a his­tory of pear­ling and pearl cul­ture, en­com­pass­ing biology, min­er­al­ogy, gemol­ogy, ecol­ogy, an­thro­pol­ogy, the­ol­ogy, and eco­nom­ics. It in­cludes more than 200 ob­jects and a king’s ran­som of gems, from the pearls caught in situ in their bi­valve hosts in the cab­i­nets of cu­riosi­ties to the great vats of mass-pro­duced, Chi­nese fresh­wa­ter pearls that mark its close.

Yet it is the jew­ellery that all but the most stal­wartly sci­en­tific will swoon over: ex­hibit af­ter ra­di­ant ex­hibit, pro­duc­ing a snow-blind­ness all its own. There are first-cen­tury AD pearl and emer­ald con­fec­tions (the Ro­mans, as I do, adored pearls off­set by green), ob­ses­sively in­tri­cate Byzan­tine trea­sures, cor­us­cat­ing me­dieval crowns, price­less royal relics, and quiv­er­ing Art Deco blooms.

Among th­ese items are the poignant sin­gle pearl ear­ring worn by Charles I at his ex­e­cu­tion in 1649, and the ex­trav­a­gant yet sim­ple pearl and di­a­mond neck­lace owned by his grand­daugh­ter, Mary II. There are the play­things of em­per­ors, queens, and princelings the globe over. Here we have El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor’s conker-sized Bul­gari nat­u­ral-pearl pear-drop ear­rings; there the dis­creet, cul­tured pearl strand given to Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe, a woman who usu­ally avoided jew­ellery, by Joe DiMag­gio, the love of her brief life.

In­cluded are the most lav­ishly lus­trous ac­com­plish­ments of the houses of Chaumet, Gar­rard, Cartier, Tif­fany & Co, and Bul­gari, with a brac­ingly mod­ern Art Deco Jean Fou­quet brooch by way of a palate cleanse. To carry us to the present, there is Ste­fan Hem­merle’s work with rare melo pearls; fig­u­ra­tive cre­ations of Ge­of­frey Row­land­son (in which ab­stract-shaped pearls are trans­formed into, say, leap­ing dancers); and Sam Tho Duong’s ex­tra­or­di­nary piece, whose value lies not in the mass-pro­duced seed pearls that are its ma­te­rial, but their painstak­ing as­sem­bly into snow-be­decked branches.

The V&A show is, in short, noth­ing less than dizzy­ing, and one feels the need to visit not once, but sev­eral times to be­gin to fathom its riches. Beatriz Chadour-Samp­son, the guest co-cu­ra­tor of the ex­hi­bi­tion and au­thor of its ac­com­pa­ny­ing book, grew up in a fam­ily of jewellers, match­ing pearls as her sum­mer job. “Pearls have fas­ci­nated hu­man­ity across cul­ture af­ter cul­ture, cen­tury af­ter cen­tury. I am still search­ing for the source of their al­lure; their round­ness, their beauty, their lus­tre? Wher­ever it lies, there is a magic in them.”

Part of this magic re­sides in the cu­ri­ous chem­istry of their cre­ation. For­eign bod­ies caught in­side the shells of mol­luscs (oys­ters, yes, but also clams and mus­sels) ir­ri­tate the ten­der flesh into se­cret­ing a pro­tec­tive sub­stance that so­lid­i­fies into lay­ers of nacre. Cut a gen­uine pearl in half and one finds rings in the man­ner of a tree. The pearl’s lus­tre is the prod­uct of light re­fracted through th­ese lay­ers; the more lay­ers, the greater and more glo­ri­ous the gleam.

The ori­gins of such mol­luscs lie in the Cam­brian pe­riod, some 530 mil­lion years ago. There are fos­silised pearls dat­ing back 225 mil­lion years, mak­ing them one of hu­man­ity’s old­est and most cov­eted gems. They ap­pear in all shades – pinks, browns, yel­lows, blacks – ac­cord­ing to the colour of their sur­round­ings, and in as many shapes as sizes. That said, other than the op­u­lent Baroque pearl drop, the non­pareil will al­ways be the per­fect, round, pure white paragon.

An­cient Greeks con­sid­ered pearls the beau­ti­ful re­sult of light­ning strikes at sea; Ro­mans, the frozen tears of gods. Pliny the Elder as­cribed to the Ara­bian no­tion that they were so­lid­i­fied dew­drops. Pearls have been as­so­ci­ated with good for­tune and ill, with the power of a charm and pure voodoo ris­ing. Even in the 1980s, con­fronted with a lit­tle girl with a pearl ear­ring, my grand­moth­ers would pre­dict the on­set of tears.

Pearls, then, sit squarely – roundly – as the lu­mi­nous in­car­na­tion of para­dox: a pro­saic phys­i­cal func­tion that be­comes a price­less

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