My Great Aunt Edith gave me a string of pearls when I was nine. I was transfixed by their subtle gleam but not allowed to wear them until I was older. When nothing else quite cuts the mustard Great Aunt Edith’s pearls still work their magic. It would appear that I’m not the only one who admires a Pearl and the V&A have teamed up with Qatar Museum Authority to put on a fine exhibition.
Trade routes, portraits, jewellery and science are all in the mix. The BIG NEW FACT that I learnt is …… Pearls don’t only come from oysters, cowrie shell and scallops to name but two others can produce the gems. To top that it’s not sand that provides the core for a pearl but a parasite (a fact I will not share with my husband in case he thinks it detracts from the romance and refuses to buy me any).
Arguably one of the most famous pearls, La Peregrina was given to Mary Tudor by Philip II on their marriage, after her death it returned to the Spanish Royal family where it stayed until Napoleons brother was installed as King of Spain. When his son lost the throne he kept the pearl and took it travelling. Eventually the Duke of Abercorn acquired it, when it came up for auction in 1969 Richard Burton bought it for Elizabeth Taylor. We don’t see the stone but portraits of its many famous owners wearing it. Mary Queen of Scots necklace is here, she must have been tiny, it looked barely bigger than my wrist. Josephine’s tiara, Victoria’s brooch, Queen Alexandra’s necklace and of special interest to residents of Epsom: Lady Rosebery’s tiara.
Right at the end of the exhibition are several buckets of cultured pearls, the message being that now so many pearls are being produced in China that the value to the gently gleaming pearl could be in danger of being debased.
And should you have concluded that my Great Aunt must have been very wealthy to give away pearl necklaces to little girls, she was not. She was a jewellery buyer for a large department store and, I suspect, knew better than anyone their true value.
Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7
Pearls closes on 19 January 2014
Open 1000-1745 daily