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The history of pearls will be brought to lustrous life at the forthcoming exhibition at the V&A

From ancient stones to contemporary settings, pearl jewellery through the ages will be on display at the V&A's hotly anticipated new exhibition this autumn.

5 September 2013

By Daisy Tinker

For its forthcoming exhibition in partnership with the Qatar Museums Authority, the V&A museum in Kensington, London, will explore the unique beauty and timeless allure of pearls through the ages.

Running from 21 September to 19 January 2014, the major new Pearls exhibition will delve into the long and distinguished history of this classic form of adornment, showcasing everything from ancient specimens to contemporary jewels, via cultured pearls, celebrities and key moments in history.

Long associated with royalty and glamour, the pearl has long been an object of desire due to its rarity and beauty. Exceptional jewels from the Roman times to the present day will be on display, highlighting the pearl's enduring appeal. Across the Roman Empire, jewels featuring the pearlescent stones were a symbol of wealth and status. In medieval Europe, they appeared in religious symbols as metaphors for purity and chastity. By the 19th century, courts across Europe employed the opulence of the pearl, wearing them strung onto necklaces of varying sizes. And come the 1920s, pearls had taken on a different meaning once again. An era defined by a new feeling of freedom for women, the Roaring Twenties saw the pearl shed its religious and regal connotations and become a symbol of liberation.

From the 1920s onwards, the exhibition will delve into one major event that changed the way in which the world perceived pearls: the development of cultured varieties. At the beginning of the 20th century, Kokichi Mikimoto was granted a patent for developing round cultured pearls from Akoya oysters and, by the 1950s, his cultured pearls had conquered the market. This innovation enabled the once rare and expensive pearl to become increasingly affordable to a mass market, igniting a global love affair with these precious pearlescent orbs. A number of important Mikimoto pieces will be on display at the exhibition, including a cultured pearl necklace once owned by Marilyn Monroe.

Today, the range of contemporary pearl jewellery is endless, and the exhibition will showcase an incredible breadth of modern-day jewels. During the 1960s and 1970s, avant-garde jewellers such as Andrew Grima used pearls in creative and abstract ways, while today the emphasis is increasingly on the creative ways in which pearls can be incorporate into designs. To illustrate this diversity, modern pearl jewels by Yoko London - a pearl and diamond jewel specialist based in the capital - are also included in the exhibition, together with a number of pieces by German jeweller Hemmerle, including a spectacular tarantula brooch featuring one of largest and rarest brown conch pearls in the world. 

To find out more, and book tickets for, the Pearls exhibition at the V&A, which runs from 21 September to 19 January 2014, click here.

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