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'Pearls' Exhibition at Victoria and Albert Museum

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by Chris Henniker (subscribe)
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Would you give your girlfriend a pearl necklace?

The V&A in Kensington has the ultimate window shopping experience at their Pearls exhibition, where you can look but not touch, even though your temptation is strong. Sadly, they're in Victorian looking safes that look like they can withstand a nuclear blast.

The exhibition tells the story of the pearl in cultures around the world, from their formation in the shell to the present day, dispelling one key myth in the process: they're formed around a grain of sand.

Rather, they're formed as the result of a parasite sucked in as the clam or oyster feeds. Science aside, this exhibition really assails your sense of wonder as you contemplate their colours and shapes.

You get to see everything, from really haunting x-rays of pearls inside the shells of molluscs and become astonished that something of a defence mechanism could produce something of great beauty.

I was moved by the fragility of the animal in question, even though I have a phobia of snails. Seeing one of a worm infestation showed nature at its most amazing and you ask yourself why we create something the polar opposite when the same happens to us. I mean, there is nothing beautiful about Amoebic dysentery, the human equivalent.

Even as you muse upon the splendour of how the light catches on their surface, you are confronted in your mind's eye with questions about the rights and wrongs of pearls being cultured.

One Japanese manufacturer pioneered cultured pearls through grafting the mantle from one oyster to another. Seeing the film showing he process, I thought it would be done by robots in clean room conditions, but it was done by skilled hand. Even I asked myself whether the animal rights advocates object to this?

Still, this is not about the bioethics of beauty, but the sheer allure of one of nature's marvels. Indeed, one favourite piece was an exquisite avant-garde brooch that can change shape. The utter simplicity and cleanliness of line had me entranced. It had none of the fussy opulence you expect, but could see a direct line from that and the ancient fishermen who fished them.

The exhibition's straight forward narrative contributed to the feeling you were being squeezed through like plankton through a mollusc's mouth parts, especially in peak times, but it was a story well told and filled with fascinating new insights on our relationship with nature.

The fact a pearl shines from harvesting makes it all the more simpler than a gem, which has to be machined, adds to the pearl's appeal. However Carl Linneaus's experiments in culturing pearls is linked to how they are graded. You are shown machinery that grade pearls and how this is done gives insight into how it's formed. A natural pearl will have layers of nacre that accumulate over time (a photograph shows this), which adds a new dimension to your understanding of what appears to be so simple.

Even if you can't afford a pearl necklace, you and your girlfriend have just received the gift of knowledge. This astounds your friends as much as the lustre of something stemming from a biological defence mechanism - don't you think?
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