Elizabeth Taylor in Ash Wednesday
Thursday, 05 September 2013

Teardrops of the gods

Diamonds fall in and out of fashion, but our love affair with pearls is timeless, according to a stunning new exhibition at the V&A.

Written by Katy Pearson
For centuries, a diver would have to prize open 2,000 oyster shells to uncover one precious pearl. Little wonder, then, that they became a symbol of extreme wealth.

Rulers wore crowns adorned with them to show their dynastic authority and the prosperity of their land – indeed, such was Queen Victoria’s love for them that she had Garrard’s create black pearl jewellery when she was in mourning after Prince Albert’s death in 1861.

From left: Cross pendant, gold with rubies and pearls, Germany 1500-15400, Victoria and Albert MuseumFrom left: Cross pendant, gold with rubies and pearls, Germany 1500-15400, Victoria and Albert Museum; Cartier 1930s pearl necklace with platinum and diamond clasps, QMA Collection; 'Frozen' by Sam Tho Duong, QMA Collection

In Russia, Iran, China and India, displays of pearls formed an integral part of the regalia of ruling monarchs. For Romans, pearls were a desirable luxury, a symbol of wealth and status. In medieval Europe they were synonymous with chastity. King Charles I even wore a pearl-drop earring to his execution in 1649.

But at the beginning of the 20th century, Kokichi Mikimoto was granted a patent for developing round, cultured pearls from Akoya oysters, encouraging them to grow in farmed oysters by putting irritants in their shells. His revolution made pearls affordable, but no less desirable.

They have certainly had their share of iconic ambassadors. Coco Chanel wore fake pearls but rarely wore her expensive, real ones. Elizabeth Taylor’s Bulgari pearl-drop pendant earrings are now owned by the Qatar royal family, and her La Peregrina pearl, a present from Richard Burton, which was made into a necklace by Cartier, sold at auction for US$11.8m.

Jackie Kennedy was known for her triple-strand pearls, and Diana, Princess of Wales, often wore her sapphire and pearl necklace to gala events. Even the Duchess of Cambridge sported a £58 pair of ‘diamond and pearl’ drop earrings on the Royal balcony at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations last year.

But one doesn’t have to be a Hollywood icon or a royal to wear pearls with panache. And while the V&A will this month put on a show of some of the rarest and most beautiful pearls on earth, elegant pearl jewellery is now available to suit any budget.

Pearls is at the V&A, Cromwell Road, London SW7: 020-7942 2000, www.vam.ac.uk from 21 September to 19 January 2014.

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