Beauty, Power and Pearls on show at the V&A

By Sarah Jackson | 18 September 2013

Exhibition review: Pearls, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, September 21 2013 - January 19 2014

Geoffrey Rowlandson, Grand Jete, gold with diamonds and two cultured baroque pearls, London (1999)
Geoffrey Rowlandson, Grand Jete, gold with diamonds and two cultured baroque pearls, London (1999)© Geoffrey Rowlandson
Pearls is a very practical name for a exceptionally decadent show. There is no room for interpretation; for anyone without an interest in pearls or jewellery, it’s unlikely to generate much excitement. But is there anything here for the non-enthusiast?

One man with a clear passion for pearls is co-curator Hubert Bari, the director of the future Pearl and Jewellery Museum in Qatar.

“I want to send some messages to the general public,” he declares. “First, all shells are capable of producing pearls – but they are not easy to find.”

Bari is French, and goes on to describe an experience he knows is probably little-known outside of France; when eating land snails, one occasionally comes across what feels like a grain of sand. It is in fact likely to be a tiny pearl. I’ll certainly be looking at the snails in my garden differently now.

The second message Hubert wants to impart is that pearls are never formed around a grain of sand, but rather the intrusion of a parasite into the soft mantle of a hard-shelled mollusc.

He gestured at a portrait of an aristocratic woman wearing strings of pearls around her neck. “She might think differently about what she was wearing if she knew what was inside it,” he laughs.

Despite this very unglamorous origin, pearls can be found in very beautiful shells, as revealed by a gorgeous selection found in the Arabian Gulf. The V&A emulates the Cabinets of Curiosities belonging to Renaissance collectors by placing the shells in old-fashioned black display cases – augmented, of course, with bulletproof glass.

Similarly, many of the pieces on display are cased in German safes dating from the 1850s. Once again, modern bulletproof glass negates the need to shut the thick-set doors, but their use reinforces that pearls are still a valuable commodity.

The rest of the exhibition explores what co-curator Beatriz Chadour-Sampson calls “the history of the Gulf pearl through history”, represented by more than 200 pieces of jewellery and works of art.

These include a necklace of pearls given to Marilyn Monroe by her husband Joe DiMaggio, a pearl-drop earring worn by Charles I at his execution and a stunning dress worn by Queen Elizabeth II in 1957.

Some of the more interesting pieces, however, showcase the unique properties of baroque pearls – pearls with an irregular shape. Ingenious jewellery-makers have used these strange shapes to create fantastically elaborate arrangements.

These include a pendant dating from about 1600 with pearls forming the bodies of a cock and hen, inlaid with tiny gold flecks to simulate feathers, and the ‘Serpent’s Nest’ pendant, made by Wilhelm Lucas von Cranach in around 1917-18.

Three blister pearls (pearls formed against the shell) are used to represent the eggs, surrounded by a gold snake, inlaid with diamonds, emeralds and rubies.

There is some confusion in the layout – despite being broadly chronological, the earring worn by Charles I in 1649 appears before a Portrait of an Unknown Lady, painted in around 1594, with no real explanation as to why.

This painting also highlights another confusing element to the show: the meaning of pearls across the world and throughout time. Although universally acclaimed as precious, pearls have nevertheless been ascribed with a whole swathe of inter-connected meanings, leaving the exhibition feeling a little muddled.

The Unknown Lady in the portrait mentioned above is dripping in pearls due to their association with fertility, yet pearls are also used in religious iconography to represent chastity. Anyone determined to trace a history of pearls either chronologically or thematically could well find themselves frustrated.

The exhibition finishes with the introduction of cultured pearls, first patented during the late 19th century by Kokichi Mikimoto. The manufacturer of cultured pearls democratised pearl jewellery, fulfilling his dream “to adorn the necks of all women of the world with pearls”.

However, even cultured pearls retain a precious status. Only 5% of Mikimoto’s pearl farm productions are kept in order to ensure that quality remains high.

Pearls is unlikely to win over anybody who has any kind of inherent dislike of the form. However, that’s not to say that there is nothing here for non-aficionados: if, like me, you are not a particular pearl enthusiast, this is still a fascinating display of what can be achieved by both the beauty of nature and human craftsmanship.

There is much that a general member of public could enjoy here – it’s just not marketed at them. The totally unambiguous title and the narrow corridors of the exhibition hint strongly that the V&A is not expecting the kind of crowds blockbuster exhibitions can attract. If those crowds do in fact turn up, the exhibition could be a frustrating and difficult to navigate experience.

  • Open 10am-5.45pm (10pm Fridays). Admission from £11.00 (concessions available). Book online. Follow the museum on Twitter @V_and_A.

More pictures:

Necklace, natural pearls set in coloured gold, Probably England (c.1850)
Necklace, natural pearls set in coloured gold (circa 1850, probably England)© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Qatar Museums Authority Collection, Lady Rosebery’s pearl and diamond tiara, London (c.1878)
The Qatar Museums Authority Collection, Lady Rosebery’s pearl and diamond tiara, London (circa 1878)© Christie's Images
Installation image of 'Pearls'
The exhibition explores Gulf pearls through history'© Victoria and Albert Museum
A rare selection of natural pearls from the Qatar Museums Authority Collection
A rare selection of natural pearls from the Qatar Museums Authority Collection© Photo © Creutz
George Fouquet, Bodice ornament, gold with enamel, turquoise, abalone pearl and mother-of-pearl, Paris (c1900-1). On loan from the Sparkasse Pforheim Calw Art Foundation
George Fouquet, Bodice ornament (circa 1900-1). Gold with enamel, turquoise, abalone pearl and mother-of-pearl, Paris. On loan from the Sparkasse Pforheim Calw Art Foundation© 2013 Photo by Rudiger Floter © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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Follow Sarah Jackson on Twitter @SazzyJackson.

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