A joint venture by the V&A and the Qatar Museums Authority, Pearls is a richly decorative exhibition which brings new understanding to these precious objects.
The impressive range of jewellery reaches across cultures and time periods, from Roman hair ornaments to Qatari necklaces, Victorian bridal ornaments to contemporary design. Almost all of the items on show, from shells to the most elaborate jewellery, are displayed in vintage cabinets, giving an effect that is a little like a Kunstkammer crossed with a jewellery shop: you peer into it with especial curiosity, doubly aware that you are being presented with something valuable.
The glamour is however grounded by fact: with each set of cabinets comes a different theme, so the individual displays are almost like contained worlds with their own stories. This was particularly strong in the middle section of the exhibition, where the objects were strongly tied to their social contexts. The historian in me appreciated this; I was particularly captured by the cabinet concerning Catherine de Medici and Mary I of Scotland, and how pearl jewellery was used in affairs both romantic and political.
…X-ray photographs that looked almost ghostly…
Another interesting aspect of the exhibition was the comparatively small but still notable attempt to de-mystify the pearl. There are portraits (painted, photographed, and filmed) of jewellery-makers, merchants, divers, all those who work to bring these precious commodities to people. X-ray photographs that looked almost ghostly showed the making of a pearl, an almost macabre occurrence where a parasite is trapped inside the shell and smothered in the subsequent layers of nacre. Only one in around 2,000 shells may contain a natural pearl, highlighting how rare they are to find in the wild and their concomitant value in cultures worldwide. Videos provided by Mikimoto, a company renowned in Japan for their high-quality cultured pearls, show the level of surgical skill needed to successfully transfer the graft into the wet, naked flesh of a single open shell. I winced as the tweezers went in.
The one aspect of the exhibition which puzzled me, though, was the presentation of pearl jewellery by Yoko. They were of exceptional quality and a good example of contemporary design, yet for some reason their captions read like the promotion of a product in a jewellery catalogue, not the didacticism consistent with the rest of the exhibition and V&A shows in general. It jarred slightly.
…Pearls fulfils its aim…
Aside from this, Pearls fulfils its aim: to display pearls and their uses across cultures and time periods, linking them with social contexts, changing fashions, and methods of production. It is also, quite simply, utterly gorgeous to look at.