Pearls start life as excrement, says V&A curator

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Honest comment raises giggles at preview of new V&A Pearls exhibition.

The romance of natural pearls is underpinned by the belief that they start life as a grain of sand invading the perfect lining of an oyster.

But the curator of the Pearls jewellery exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London has exploded the myth, describing the gritty embryo of a pearl as more likely to be the larvae of a tapeworm excreted by another animal.

Hubert Bari, co-curator of the show, said in a press preview for the showcase: "The people marketing them prefer to say ‘It is so fantastic your necklace was made from a grain of sand’, It is better to speak about a grain of sand than to speak about a piece of [excrement] from a stingray."

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In recent years, scientists have concluded that natural saltwater pearls are formed by the intrusion of a parasite such as a worm or piece of sponge into the shell’s mantle, the organ which produces nacre (mother-of-pearl). The parasite displaces cells to form a cyst, over which the nacre grows.

The origins of pearls will form only a small part of the exhibition, which runs until January 19, 2014. The main focus will be on the history of pearls, and their role in developing civilisations; all illustrated with stunning pieces of jewellery from through the ages.

Among items at the show are renaissance and Art Nouveau jewellery, designs from Tiffany, Mikimoto and Cartier, and pearl jewellery owned by royalty, including the earring wore by Charles I during his beheading. Rich, tapestried gowns from China adorned with seed pearls and an embellished mother of pearl and pearl dress worn by the Queen are among a number of striking items of clothing in the exhibition.

London pearl specialists and wholesalers Yoko London are also showcasing four special pearl jewellery collections at the exhibition, alongside pearl jewellery designs from three Central Saint Martins students, whose work is being sold through the V&A shop.

One of the star pieces is the Rosebury pearl and diamond tiara, created in 1878, which was sold at auction in 2011 for £1.2 million. The Pearls exhibition opens on September 21 in association with the Qatar Museums Author 

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