By Chere Di Boscio
What do the ancient Egyptians, Marge Simpson, Grace Kelly, Coco Chanel, Margaret Thatcher and the Maharajah of Baroda have in common? Why, their shared love of pearls, of course!
Since ancient times, these small, lustrous beads of the sea have been coveted by all who laid eyes on them. Long before they were mentioned in the Bible and the Koran, Alexander the Great was stirring a lust for pearls in the West via his trade with the East; during the Middle Ages, they were worn by royalty to symbolise power, and Elizabeth I is depicted resplendent in pearls in the Armada Portrait (below) with a single, strategically placed pendant to signify her virginity.
Today, thanks to cultivation techniques founded by Makimoto in Japan, pearls are more accessible to the masses than ever before, and given their beauty and environmental friendliness, that’s a good thing.
Undoubtedly more eco-friendly than mined gems, pearl farms do have a few eco-caveats, however. For example, freshwater pearl farming may act as the aquatic equivalent of monoculture farming, dominating other indigenous flora and fauna. Moreover, cleaning the barnacles that inevitably plague the molluscs in which pearls grow can lead to water pollution.
Fortunately, there are increasingly ‘green’ cleaning options, including introducing barnacle-eating fish species to naturally consume the pests, and there are even a new organisation, www.sustainablepearls.org, which is planning to introduce Green Certification Standards for the pearl industry by next year, which will allow for consumers to track individual pearls through the market, making the buying process more transparent.
Until then, pearl-lovers can feast their eyes on some of the most impressive pieces of jewellery ever to be fashioned by pearls at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum’s ‘Pearls’ show, an exhibition that is held in conjunction with the Qatar Museums Authority and is co-curated by the SMA’s Hubert Bari.
At the show, which runs from September 21 until January 2014, viewers will gaze at baubles worn in ancient Mesopotamia from around 2,300 BC; pearly treasures from ancient Rome and Byzantium, right up to pieces sported by modern icons like Coco Chanel , Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. Particularly poignant is the single pearl earring worn by Charles I at his execution in 1649; no one ever said pearls brought luck!
Derived from nature, simple yet exotic, understated yet dazzling, the power of pearls has always been to add substance to the magic and metaphor of adornment.
For more about the V&A show, click here.