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.
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