Pearls at the V&A

Mikimoto pearl scarfI wonder who found the first pearl? It was a long time ago – pearls have been around since Roman times, gradually going from having religious connotations to being used as symbols of love or grief by the European aristocracy in the nineteenth century. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s autumn blockbuster exhibition, Pearls, which opened yesterday, puts these fabulous jewels from the past and present on display. 

This corsage brooch of platinum, gold, diamonds and pearls was made by Chaumet in 1900. This garland style, characterised by ribbon, tassels and trellis or lace patterns, was inspired by the jewels belonging to the Empress Eugenie.

Chaumet corsage brooch 1900

This lion and snake bracelet is French and dates from about 1870.

French lion and snake bracelet 1870

The pearl choker, or collier du chien was made by Henri Vever about 1910.

Henri Vever pearl choker 1910

Ironically, these beautiful jewels have a rather yucky secret at their heart. I always though it was bits of grit that made oysters form pearls around them, but it turns out it was usually tapeworms. Makes you think twice about wearing natural pearls, doesn’t it?

If you’re thinking of swearing off pearls now you know that, there’s a solution – cultured pearls. They’re made by inserting a graft, normally a bit of the mantle of another oyster, along with a bead so that when the pearl forms, it forms around the bead, making it regular in shape (natural pearls are often irregular) and also meaning you can get a pearl in about six months instead of having to wait years.

The man who began the cultured pearl industry was Kokichi Mikimoto. He was the first person to produce hemispherical pearls in 1893, but the patent for producing spherical cultured pearls was taken out by Tokishi Nishikawa and his partner in 1907. Fortunately the two men came to an agreement, Nishikawa married Mikimoto’s daughter and Mikimoto began producing cultured pearls in 1916. Today the Mikimoto company is a Japanese success story and 99% of pearls sold worldwide are cultured pearls. There’s a whole section of the V&A exhibition devoted to Mikimoto pearls.

This Flower Cart sash clip, based on the deign of a flower cart from the Heian period,  was made by Mikimoto in 1910.

Mikimoto Flower Cart clip

This gothic choker was made in 2011 using white gold, diamonds and pearls.

Mikimoto gothic collar

Made in 2013, this eight row Mobius necklace follows the principle of a Mobius strip, where a surface with only one side is created by twisting one end through 180 degrees before joining to the other.

Mikimoto Mobius necklace

This necklace, made in 2010, is called Flowing Tide. Mikimoto use only the best five percent of pearls produced on their farms to maintain quality.

Mikimoto Flowing Tide necklace

This pearl scarf contains five thousand pearls, matched for size, colour, lustre and surface perfection.

Mikimoto Pearl scarf

Cultured pearls are an major industry in the South Seas, where they produce large coloured pearls from the Pinctada maxima oyster.The common Pinctada maxima produces white pearls, the silver-lipped variety results in pale metallic-grey tints and the gold-lipped variety gives an intense golden hue.

Yoko gold pearl necklace

The Pinctada margaritifera, the black-lipped oyster from the Pacific atolls, produces so-called black pearls, some of which are actually black and others which have green, blue, or aubergine tones.

Yoko black pearl necklace

Both necklaces are made by Yoko London.

There’s also an awful warning about over-production at the end of the exhibition. These buckets of cultured pearls from China show how quality can be degraded. They’re grown in freshwater mussels in lakes and paddy fields with up to fifty grafts in each mussel.

Chinese cultured pearls

Pearls at the V&A, in association with the Qatar Museums Authority,  runs until 19th January. Tickets are £11 and advance booking is recommended.

Pearls at the V&A

10 thoughts on “Pearls at the V&A

  1. My mother made me buy two strings of pearls with my first “bonus” the year I started working (a long time ago, I must add). I have since bought a lot of jewelry but my first pearls remain quite precious. 😀


  2. A white pearl necklace has gotten such a connotation for being the uniform of the Republican wife in the USA that I’ve switched over to a black pearl strand! fascinating about the tapeworm, yikes!


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