‘Women spend more money on their ears in pearl earrings than on any other part of their person.’ So said Pliny the Elder, who disapproved of the increasing fashion for pearls in the 1st century. It’s lucky he’s not around now to see the V&A’s new exhibition Pearls (until 19 January), where there are natural, cultured and freshwater ones in abundance (including, at the end of the show, eight buckets stuffed with cheap freshwater ones from China, which produces — overproduces — more than 2,000 tons of pearls a year).
Pearls do not, as I thought, form around grains of sand in an oyster shell but are made by a parasite — mostly larvae of tapeworms — entering and disrupting the cells of a mollusc, which then secretes ‘nacre’ round the foreign object that over time becomes a pearl. The shape, size, lustre and colour of the pearl all contribute to its value.
More than 200 pieces of jewellery are on display, ranging from the 1st century to the present day. George III’s beautiful gold, enamel and pearl buttons from his state coat are there, along with Charles I’s pearl-drop earring that he wore at his execution, and a necklace given to Marilyn Monroe. Exquisite tiaras (Lady Rosebery’s pearl and diamond one, above), brooches, earrings and necklaces gleam out from their cases — though I’m not sure I’d want what must be 4ft of necklace with eight rows of pearls and diamond flowers.
But, if you own pearls, wear them or they will lose their lustre, I was told rather firmly when I admitted that my three-row choker was languishing at the back of a drawer. I will, I promise.