odice ornament, gold with enamel, turquoise, abalone pearl and mother-of-pearl

Pearls Exhibition at the V&A Museum

With much excitement and anticipation, the Pearls exhibition at the V&A Museum opens later this month in London.


Promising to be one of the biggest Autumn shows, the exhibition will show off the luxurious qualities of some of the world's most unusual and valuable pearls and jewellery, as well as exploring the unique heritage and impact on popular culture of this beautiful gem.

We are very fortunate to be able to ask Beatriz Chadour-Sampson and Hubert Bari, the curators of the Pearls exhibition, about the show and what a visitor can look forward to. We would like to thank them, the V&A and the Qatar Museums Authority for their support with this article.

Here are Beatriz and Hubert's thoughts on 'Pearls'.

How special has this exhibition been for you and to curate? What did you hope that its visitors may learn about pearls?

From all gems, it is the most unusual as the natural pearl is produced by living animals. Even cultured pearls after human intervention are created by nature. Visitors will be amazed to learn that, in principle, any mollusc can produce a pearl from the giant clam to the land snail, and they will be dazzled by the variety of shapes and colours of pearls.

The history of the trade of pearls between continents is fascinating, and how East and West share the same passion for pearls.

A rare selection of natural pearls from the Qatar Museums Authority Collection

Pearls have a unique symbolic significance and mystique. Can the pearl claim to be the world's favourite gem?

Incredibly, pearls have created a global fascination over millennia, like no other gem. There is something magical about pearls, their beauty lies in their perfection of form and most of all lustre. They are born in the form that nature made them with a natural sheen.

Pearls have always been a symbol of femininity. Maybe this is the reason why the fashion for pearls continues today.

Necklace, natural pearls set in coloured gold

The exhibition showcases many famous examples of pearl jewellery, many styles of which are still being referenced today in popular culture. Have we already seen a 'golden age' of pearl jewellery design or is the pearl a gem that will be constantly reinvented?

Yes, as no other gem has been worn as consistently, as pearls. Pearls are neutral and versatile, appropriate for any occasion. In previous years jewellers have shown a persistent, if not renewed interest in creating new designs with pearls.

'Frozen' by Sam Tho Duong

What is the most striking or surprising aspect for you about the history of the pearl?

The fascination for pearls and wish to wear these beauties of nature transcends cultures and borders. The similarities in the myths and legends surrounding the pearl in East and West are astonishing. Pearls mark authority and power, symbolize prosperity and on a more personal note they are associated with joy at weddings or tears as a sign of mourning.

Lady Rosebery’s pearl and diamond tiara

Natural pearls have undergone a renaissance in the last decade, achieving spectacular prices at auction, and cultured pearls are being produced in better, more diverse and beautiful qualities. What does the future hold for this gem?

The future of the pearl depends on so many factors, not least the condition of our seas. Natural pearls are simply too rare and expensive, only affordable to the very few. Today China produces such quantities of cultured pearls of inferior quality, that they are endangering the pearl market. Whilst they give great care when creating one pearl from an oyster, the Chinese produce 50 in one mussel, at low cost in rice fields or near housing estates. In South East Asia the farms which produce the beautiful South Sea pearls are experiencing not only financial difficulties but the effects of pollution and for these reasons their future remains uncertain.

odice ornament, gold with enamel, turquoise, abalone pearl and mother-of-pearl

The desire for pearls has been so insatiable that imitation pearls have existed over centuries and their advocate in the 1930s Coco Chanel was instrumental in reviving the fashion for pearls and revived the industry at a time when this was unthinkable. No one can tell what the future will hold for this beautiful gem, but the fashion for pearls endures.

The 'Pearls, V&A and Qatar Museums Authority Exhibition', runs from 21 September 2013 to 19 January 2014 as part of the Qatar UK 2013 Year of Culture.

To learn more about the exhibition, visit the V&A website here.

Image Credits:

Bodice ornament, gold with enamel, turquoise, abalone pearl and mother-of-pearl, George Fouquet. On loan from the Sparkasse Pforheim Calw Art Foundation, Paris c1900-1, Photo by Rudiger Floter © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2013


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