With a pearl, the world is your oyster
Monday, 30 November -0001

With a pearl, the world is your oyster

Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but it was pearls that were once the most precious gems, says Corinne Julius – and only the extremely privileged were allowed to wear them

The pearl in western culture is a symbol of unblemished perfection and purity. The Incas and Aztecs prized pearls for their beauty and magical powers, and in Hinduism the presentation of an undrilled pearl and its piercing formed part of the marriage ceremony. Today, pearls are associated with a 30th wedding anniversary, so are highly appropriate to the 30th Goldsmiths’ Fair this month. Many makers exhibiting at the fair traditionally use pearls, but this year special pearl pieces are being created to mark the event. The image is as far removed from twinset and pearls as it is possible to be.

Pearls are formed when an irritant, such as a speck of grit, gets inside an oyster or mussel, and to protect itself, it secretes a lustrous substance called nacre around the object. In 1893 the art of culturing pearls was discovered in Japan by deliberately introducing irritants to the shells, and today most jewellers use cultured pearls, grown in fresh or seawater.

Depending on their provenance, pearls can be irregularformed baroques or perfect globes, and they come in an astounding variety of colours, from deep green to steely white, golden yellow to chocolate brown, icy blue to almost purple. Those most used by today’s jewellers are South Sea saltwater pearls grown in the Pinctada Maxima oyster across South-East Asia to Northern Australia, which can be cream, pink or golden, or Tahitian Black saltwater pearls from the Pictada Margaritifera, which range from grey to black with red, green or blue overtones. Other popular choices include Mabe Blister pearls, which grow attached to the inside of the shell of the Pteria Penguin and Pteria Sterna oysters, or Keshi pearls, which are small, irregular-shaped pearls produced when the oyster rejects a nucleus before the culturing process is complete.

Whichever pearls they use, jewellers exhibiting at Goldsmiths’ Fair select the very best for their designs. Jane Sarginson, who has been working with pearls for over 30 years, searches the world for the most interesting specimens. Traders bring her their most exciting pearls, which often ’fire her imagination to create striking designs. ‘Everyone who wears pearls loves them,’ she says. ‘Pearls light you up. You can dress them up or down.’

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The pearl brings out the mystery and romanticism in makers. Jane Adam, one of the UK’s leading jewellery designers, says, ‘My silver and gold pod pieces are inspired by natural forms such as shells, seeds and pods. They contain freshwater pearls loose within them, so they can move and be touched but never really held, like precious secrets.’ They allude to the story of the mermaid who gave her prince a shell containing a hidden precious pearl. ‘He could hold it, but he could never really touch what was caught within it. It made him feel the mystery of his lover, and he enjoyed feeling that there was more to discover.’

This, says Jane, mirrors the secret of the pearl within a shell, which the mollusc has created to protect itself against a foreign body. It can only be seen and appreciated when the shell is opened and the mollusc dies. ‘A pearl is, like so many of the things we value and ’find beautiful, the product of sacrifi’ce. Surely this makes it all the more precious.’

About pearls

This secret element also attracts Jerusalem-born silversmith Adi Toch, whose gilded Tactile bowls are ’filled with freshwater pearls that can’t be reached. The pearls make sounds within the vessels, inviting the observer to touch, play and feel the uidity of the tiny pearls held inside. Designer jeweller Marianne Anderson’s use of pearls is less clandestine. She complements her oxidised silver and gold jewellery, inspired by the history of ornament (particularly architectural elements mixed with traditional renaissance jewellery forms), by using a wide variety of pearls. In some instances she uses serried ranks of tiny seed pearls to adorn a brooch; in others, she chooses large single pearls to create drops or pendants.

The new-faceted Tahitian pearl, where extra-€fine faceting enhances the colour range as light is reflected and refracted by the facets, excites jeweller Mikala Djorup. ‘I love pearls in their natural state, but I am fascinated by this new expression, and it’s wonderful how an old favourite can still be surprising.’

French jeweller Ornella Iannuzzi creates exotic, rather baroque pieces with pearls, combined with other sea elements, such as shells, sea urchins, coral, fossilised coral or mother-of-pearl. ‘I look for details that would make the pearl special or unique such as unusual colours, patterns or funny happenings, like a tiny baby pearl on top of a bigger one. I usually prefer baroque shapes and Keshi pearls as they are unique and grow spontaneously in molluscs. But I can’t resist a beautiful Tahitian or golden South Sea pearl. Pearls are very tactile and sensual, with a warm, soft and silky touch. I like the sound they make, and their almost magical aspect when the light strikes them. There isn’t any other material that can have such an elegant and sophisticated look. Pearls are also a symbol of femininity, as well as adventure, which are key points in my work. But I particularly love them because they are natural beauties that don’t need to be cut or polished.’ 

Goldsmiths’ Fair 2012: 30th Anniversary, 24 September to 7 October at Goldsmiths’ Hall, Foster Lane, London EC2V 6BN: 020-7606 7010, www.thegoldsmiths.co.uk

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