Pearls exhibition at the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum

Although I want to focus upon local and regional dress collections across the UK within my new role as a Worn Through contributor, there can be no doubt that I am from London and greatly appreciate all that my hometown has to offer.   So, for my second post, I thought I would return to my dress/design history roots with a visit to the Pearls exhibition at the V&A Museum.

My schooling in design history and theory began at the V&A, where I completed an MA History of Design in conjunction with the Royal College of Art.  It was such a rich experience, to be taught by researchers and curators active in the museum while spending almost every day in the presence of its never ending collections.  I know it may sound cliched when I say that I never stop discovering new things on a visit to the V&A but it really is worth saying.  In other words, the V&A is never dull and its broad, varied sweep of curatorial decisions means there is always some display or exhibition worth further discussion and debate.

That is perhaps why I chose to visit Pearls, an exhibition organised in partnership with the Qatar Museum Authority, and which closed to the public a week ago.  Jewellery and bodily adornment does interest me, as an aspect of dress and identity, and I have spend several years engaging with student jewellers and silversmiths about the focus and value of their work.  However, I tend to approach the subject through the prism of critical design rather than from the magnifying glass of a collector.  So, when faced with an exhibition that aims to celebrate one form of jewellery, I needed some convincing.  How would I engage with Pearls if I wasn’t already a fan of this curious natural phenomenon?  As I entered the exhibition, I admit, my mind was atuned to a slightly cynical attitude.  It was with some relief that I then found myself completely immersed in the fascinating, but also disturbing, story of an inherently precious hard, spherical mass.

There are four sections to the exhibition and for me, the most satisfying were the first and the last, both of which explored what a pearl is, how it is produced and its eventual redesign in an effort to make it a cheaper commodity.  The middle sections were dedicated to displays of jewellery that show the pearl’s recurring importance throughout Western history as a symbol of authority, wealth, glamour and prestige.  This was reiterated by the use of old 19th and early 20th century safes as display cases.

There were definitely some fascinating pieces to be seen here, such as a pearl drop earring worn by Charles I at his execution in 1649, the Renaissance portrait of a pregnant woman wearing row upon row of pearls or the pieces by Reinhold Vasters, a master jewellery forger.  Yet, overall, these sections probably hold more appeal for the visitor who likes to look at shiny, dazzling objects in a setting that smells faintly of a commercial showroom.  It is no surprise that the Evening Standard lauded this section, suggesting that it is where the ‘death, sex and jewels’ approach to exhibition planning, as described by Valerie Cummings in her text Understanding Fashion History has taken precedence over a more critical approach to the design, production and consumption of pearls in various societies and times.

Saying that, the first section of the exhibition is gripping as the story of a pearl’s creation reveals its true state as an accident of natural causes.  Crudely put, pearls are the result of fish or shellfish excrement (which contains a tapeworm) becoming trapped in a mollusc such as an oyster or mussel, which then tries to deal with the alien body by growing nacre (mother of pearl) over it.  After a couple of years, a cyst is formed and there you have your glamorous pearl.  As these trapped tapeworms are rare, to find a single natural pearl is the equivalent of opening 2,000 oyster shells.  I was quite surprised by this as in my research on jewellery, fashion and ethics, I had not found any discussion on the degree of waste produced through pearl farming.  This was further compounded by the last section which focused upon the emergence of the cultured pearl.  The farming of natural pearls eventually diminished stocks in the Persian Gulf meanwhile the wave of modernity washed over the 20th century and Kokichi Mikimoto succeeded in cultivating fresh water pearls in an innovative feat of genetic engineering.  As Beatrix Chadour-Sampson, co-curator of the exhibition explains, pearls are born, not made.   The difference now is that where before they were born in situ, they are now completely test-tubed, leading to a growing Chinese mass market where everyone can adopt a pearl baby.

Display of mass produced pearls at the end of the exhibition

A film of Japanese women in the mid 1930s grafting small pieces of nacre onto freshwater mussels alongside haunting photographs of Chinese urban landscapes transfigured (or transformed) by pearl cultivation were nothing short of captivating.  To see the technical production of cultured pearls and its impact on contemporary China and the historical Persian Gulf raised questions about how these rather ugly, biological rarities had managed to persuade us otherwise – I mean, if Roman women were obsessed with pearl earrings, why was that the case?  Who were the buyers and traders that created such interest in what seems to me to be such an inherently obsolescent enterprise, founded upon a very narrow hierarchy of  labor and capital?  It still takes around two years to cultivate a pearl and yet Mikimoto, as well as most of what China produces, only keep 5-10% of what they produce to maintain perceived levels of quality.

Pearl divers in the Persian Gulf circa 1970s

Mark Hudson, reviewing the exhibition in the Daily Telegraph, suggests that one needs to be a particular sort of woman to wear and ‘get’ pearls.  In other words, you either have it or you don’t.  This probably makes more sense if you categorise jewellery and those who wear it according to modernist tastes, whereby you put bling in opposition to pearls and you see most jewellery as a highly femininised enterprise, where its stereotypical aim is to beautify the world.  However, why are we assuming all women acknowledge the pearl’s high value?  I don’t get what the fuss is about because I find it difficult to take their status for granted.  The assumed emphasis on pearls and feminine identity seemed a missed opportunity for the exhibition to explore the way in which jewellery and adornment challenges gender roles and expectations.  It would have been interesting to know whether today’s jewellery makers/wearers see it that way too?  Although the exhibition does feature contemporary pieces by makers such as Nora Fok and Frederick Baker, they are not invited to comment on how they understand this curious material beyond just its assumed prestige and glamour.

Chest belonging to a pearl dealer

The Pearls exhibition is no doubt a promotion for the upcoming Pearl Museum in Qatar which, according to the Daily Telegraph, will feature most of a collection owned by Hussain Alfardan, known as the dealer in the Qatari pearl industry, and whose portrait is prominently display in the exhibition next to artifacts associated with pearl trading: scales, conversion tables and sieves.  Much has been said in the British popular media about how this particular exhibition highlights the way in which Qatar wants to buy back their cultural heritage – pearls were the most important Persian commodity before oil.  Interestingly, while they may possess these objects physically, Qatar and its historical relationship with the trading of pearls or influence upon their popularity is little explored in this exhibition.  Why?  Perhaps because, like pearls, their authority on the subject is a priori assumed and, as the viewer, we require nothing more than that assurance of cultural capital.  In the end, I left the exhibition convinced not of the pearl’s allure but of the way in which we fetishise objects and how insightful this process can be about ourselves in the material world.

Finally, I thought this exhibition could have incredible resonance with anyone studying fashion, ethics and sustainability.  Questions concerning the concept of luxury, the role of provenance in ethical debates and alternative cycles of consumption all seem relevant to an interest in pearls.  If you have a view on this or are in fact working on something related, I would love to hear from you.

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1 Comment

  • maureen nathan January 24, 2014 05.26 am

    I enjoyed this informative post and your questions prompted me to think about what the exhibition, which I had seen, could have been. concepts to ponder thanks to your well written article and way of thinking.


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