Pearls Exhibition, V&A



I’ve never really given it a thought – how a pearl is made, at least not until I went to the extensive Pearls exhibition currently on at the V&A until early next year.

Throughout history the ‘jewel of the sea’ has carried with it a whole range of meanings and symbols; including everything from seductiveness to purity, a good luck token in marriage to mourning and misfortune.

Coloured pearls of natural hues including peach pink, coral and mauve look like enticing sweets or decorative marbles, each pearl with a hint of colour that matches the shell encasing the jewel. The iridescent shine on a pearl comes from the nacre (mother of pearl), which is the outer layer of a pearl.
Natural pearling primarily takes place in the Arabian Gulf. There is one single beautiful pearl in 2000 oyster shells! This is through the hard and often dangerous work of the pearl divers, who rely on seeing how long they can hold their breath to reach the ocean’s floor and retrieve the oyster shells.The process of how a pearl is made is miraculous. Under the sea where an animated world resides, the process begins when a parasite enters the shell, upon where it gets trapped inside the mantle and the foreign body is attacked forming a pearl sac. It is not triggered by sand contrary to popular belief.

A selection of natural pearls from the Qatar Museums
A selection of natural pearls from the Qatar Museums

A photograph of Hussain Alfardan, a major pearl merchant in Qatar, surrounded by a table of perfect pearls in bowls according to weight and size make apparent the lucrative business that is the pearl industry. And at the peril of the workers, it reminded me somewhat of other precious jewels and the jeopardy surrounding them such as the blood diamond. Nevertheless, this was an exhibition celebrating the beauty and inspiration of the pearl.


Pearls represented purity and chastity in religion in the Renaissance period. By the end of the seventeenth-century pearl jewellery had acquired seductive, erotic connotations. By the end of the eighteenth and nineteenth-century the pearl came to represent mourning – the pearl symbolising tears of sadness. And in Elizabethan times the pearl was a symbol of fertility.

The exquisite array of jewellery and accessories on display included a bride set, a beautiful and noteworthy finger ring worn by Queen Charlotte in gold, opal and pearl, a lovers eye brooch and an ornate stopwatch, pearl jewellery worn by Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe and Tiaras/diadems worn by Princesses. Also on display was the famous Dagmar necklace given to the Danish princess Alexandra upon her marriage to Edward VII and first on display at the Great Exhibition in 1851, finally lent to the V&A by the Queen for this exhibition. The highlight of the exhibition for me has to be seeing the pearl drop earring worn by Charles I at his execution in 1647!

Pearl Tiara
Pearl Tiara

An extremely well-rehearsed exhibition that offers an impressive scope of pearl jewels and information about them. The only criticism would have to be that the V&A perhaps give you too much to look at: my attention curtailed when I reached the ‘cultured pearls’ selection, which didn’t interest me much anyway due to the fact that they are manmade. Overall a very informative exhibition bedecked with pearls!

By Heather Wells