Beatriz Chadour-Sampson discusses the gem’s past and present.
The landmark Pearls exhibition at the V&A has thrust the gem into the limelight once again, showcasing the history of pearls from ancient fishing in the Middle East to contemporary designs from the most experimental of jewellers. The exhibition’s co-curator Beatriz Chadour-Sampson leads a discussion on why pearls are adored and trendsetting the world over.
For thousands of years the Persian Gulf was the hunting ground for pearl divers, armed with nothing more than a knife and nose clip.
Dive after dive, these men spent months in the salty water, risking life, limb and their sight on the hunt for the most perfect of natural pearls.
Pearl farming today is a very different art, with cultured pearls and freshwater goods dominating the gem’s use in jewellery design, but the story of pearls – from those ancient days in the environs of Qatar through to adorning starlets on the red carpet today – still captures our imagination.
The recent exhibition at the V&A Museum in London bought together thousands of years of pearl history, with designs from Cartier, Mikimoto and Hemmerle and pieces worn by King Charles I, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor.
The exhibition, a joint partnership between the V&A and the Qatar Museums Authority, was overseen by co-curators Beatriz Chadour-Sampson and Hubert Bari, with Chadour-Sampson, a jewellery historian, adding jewellery from about 40 private lenders and companies to the exhibition, which had previously appeared in both Qatar and Japan.
"From curating the exhibition I have realised pearls are a global phenomenon," says Chadour-Sampson. "If you have gemstones they are usually sourced at a certain time owing to a lift in demand, but pearls have remained fashionable over years and across cultures."
Chadour-Sampson points out that pearls are a gem worn universally in the East and West, whether for cocktails in London or to work in Osaka; they transcend cultures as diamonds have, and surpass the popularity of many coloured stones.
The history of pearls in the Middle East is also evolving and, where pearls were once a trade, exported by gem dealers for use all over the world, they have become a status symbol, with many ancient pieces of natural pearl jewellery being revamped for a modern-day Middle Eastern customer willing to pay the heftier price tag commanded by natural pearls.
While natural pearls are rarely fished today, they regularly hit the headlines when sold at auction. As Chadour-Sampson notes, natural pearls that would have cost tens of thousands of pounds at auction 20 years ago are today fetching millions. They starred in several fine jewellery auctions in 2013, including Sotheby’s Geneva auction of Gina Lollobrigida’s jewels, in which a pair of natural pearl earrings sold for CHF2.29 million (£1.56m). At a Christie’s Geneva sale in May last year, a single strand natural pearl necklace went under the hammer for US$8.45 million (£5.13m), setting a world record for this style of necklace sold at auction.
"The symbolism has changed for pearls," states Chadour-Sampson, referring to a 1930s Cartier necklace selected for the V&A exhibition boasting five strands of graduated, natural pearls. Many of those glancing upon it today would be hard pressed to comprehend just how many dives the necklace would have taken to make. "It tells you a story about how long it takes to put together, but we’re spoilt today as we have access to cultured pearls," she adds.
The cultured pearl, championed by Kokichi Mikimoto who invented cultured pearl farming on an industrial scale, has become the norm for jewellers today. "Mikimoto’s dream that any woman could adorn her neck with pearls has become very true," explains Chadour-Sampson. "But it has also gone way beyond him now as Chinese mass production of pearls by the tonne means that everyone can afford a pearl necklace."
The rise of fine cultured pearls has also answered modern-day consumers’ desire for absolute perfection in their jewellery. The most prized are larger South Sea or lustrous Tahitian pearls that have a strong, uniform colour, in hues that imitate the colour of the mollusc shell in which they grew. "The rarities of today are the South Sea pearls," says Chadour-Sampson. "The most expensive are those in natural, untreated colours; in the exhibition we showcased rare examples in shades of pink, gold, black, pistachio green, aubergine, and lavender."
Despite the boom in cultured pearls, demand for imitation pearls has also grown. While not a new phenomenon – imitation pearls have been in production for hundreds of years, made using various materials and means – they have certainly widened the scope of customer now buying and wearing pearls. "I think we’ve come a long way from the stigma of grandma’s necklace," says Chadour-Sampson in reference to imitation pearl jewellery. "Certainly pearls are attracting wearers, and what started in the 20th century with Coco Chanel wearing imitation pearls has become democratised in 21st century. Today pearls have a different story to tell and you can wear them with anything."
Among today’s boundary-pushing pearl wearers are the likes of pop stars Lady Gaga and Rihanna, and the actress Sarah Jessica Parker, both as herself and as the character Carrie Bradshaw, whom she portrayed in the series Sex & The City for six years. Each is known to layer up her pearls with other jewellery, or wear them in chunky cuff or choker form.
Alexander McQueen’s AW13 runway paid homage to the Elizabethans with lashings of freshwater pearls that adorned intricate jackets, high shoulders and even face masks. "I would say that pearls are seen more and more as an interesting medium for adornment; they are being used in jewellery but also on clothes, on bags and on boots in lavish quantities," states Chrissie Douglas, the founder of British pearl brand Coleman Douglas. "Pearls can be fun and serious at the same time."
Their pop-culture positioning has thrust pearls into the minds of younger consumers, who are picking up the various style references, whether subtle or outlandish, and translating them in their own way. "Rihanna is promoting Chanel pearls, and I have seen someone wearing the same look, the whole Chanel to do [like Rihanna]," says Chadour-Sampson.
The 1920s look has also been a fashion hit, with collars and long, wrapped strands of pearls giving the gem some razzmatazz. "The success of The Great Gatsby has also helped to make pearls fashionable again," says Annoushka Ducas. "It is important that they are cleverly styled, to ensure they are fashionable and not your mother’s pearls."
Douglas concurs, noting that the success of The Great Gatsby movie, along with popular TV series such as Mad Men and Downton Abbey, has played a part in promoting pearls.
Of course, modern design does not mean pearls have to be ostentatious. Their timelessness still shines, and the way they have been worn by the Duchess of Cambridge and Michelle Obama has been imitated in fashion magazines, on Pinterest and in the outfits worn by women across the globe.
"I am sure the combination of Michelle Obama wearing multiple strands of pearls and the Duchess of Cambridge wearing my pearl earrings has really helped to bring pearls back into fashion," Ducas states.
Like the presidents’ wives before her, most notably Jackie Kennedy, Michelle Obama’s fashion choices are influencing women’s style. Obama appears to mix and match her pearls in a combination of imitation designs and cultured or freshwater strands, and she is regularly shot wearing a large, double strand of pearls that sits close to the neck, but has also sported golden and chocolate hued pearls, a multi-strand pearl necklace in a dozen shades of blue and at other times just a simple pair of white pearl studs.
"Jackie Kennedy, like Obama, made an impact [on pearls], yet she wore imitation pearls," says Chadour-Sampson. The look was classic and elegant, something that has become synonymous with both first ladies and royalty. "If you look at the royals beyond the British shores, they wear pearls that are in no way ostentatious – simple studs, for example," Chadour-Sampson adds.
As wider jewellery design evolves and the symbolism of pearls changes, so too does the way in which jewellers are using the gem. An example is the design that featured on poster and book for the V&A and Qatar Museum Authority’s Pearls exhibit – an intricate, tactile piece called Frozen by Germany-based jeweller Sam Tho Duong, consisting of thousands of freshwater pearls.
Designers such as Professional Jeweller Hot 100 NexGem Melanie Georgacopoulos have gone as far as carving, faceting and carefully hollowing out pearls, changing the narrative of pearl design today, and what buyers and fellow designers expect from these little gems in the future.
This Trends feature is taken from the January Guest Editor issue of Professional Jeweller, led by Annoushka Ducas. To read the issue in full online, click here.