A Paean to Pearls

October 19, 2022  |  Phyllis Schiller

A new book explores the history, science and allure of these luminous gems, which have captivated artists, monarchs and connoisseurs for millennia.

From symbolizing purity and chastity in the Middle Ages to purportedly being fathered by moonbeams or created by mermaids’ tears, the pearl has managed to embody both vices and virtues, notes author Fiona Lindsay Shen in her new book, Pearl: Nature’s Perfect Gem.

Tracing the pearl’s first appearance to the Paleozoic Era — some 530 million years ago, when mollusks first came on the scene — Shen combines scientific facts with cultural references to help the reader appreciate the scope of the gem’s influence. From Cleopatra to Coco Chanel to Elizabeth Taylor, from a Vermeer painting to a John Steinbeck novel to a Federico Fellini quote, the pearl has been fascinating humanity for millennia.

“Pearl is the title of a Victorian pornographic magazine and an elevated medieval English meditation on purity,” she writes. “A pearl is a Scheherazade, spinning tales about our love of beauty and goodness, but also our envy and pride.”

Copious illustrations back up the facts and fantasies in this informative volume, which covers the discovery, demand and desire for natural pearls throughout the decades. The pearl is a uniquely “human” gem, Shen reflects in the book. Unlike mined stones, pearls come from a living organism — not through some mythical transformation of sand in an oyster’s body, but through a process called biomineralization, which is similar to the formation of human bones and teeth.

Connecting strands As a storyteller who has lived in several countries, Shen tells Rapaport Magazine that she is “drawn to subjects that connect us.” By training, she is an art historian, which “was especially helpful, as there is a vast amount of art-historical evidence for the wearing of pearls, even though the gems themselves might be long gone or now unidentifiable.”

She began researching the book six years ago, she says. “We’ve valued pearls through time and across cultures. I realized this was a story I could tell through episodes in medieval Scotland, the Persian Gulf, northwest Australia, 20th-century Japan, contemporary China.”

Growing up in Scotland herself, the author used to cross a river to get to school. That body of water was once one of the country’s major pearling rivers, and it helped inspire her subsequent interest in pearls. “Much later, I lived for several years in Zhejiang province in China, whose pearl farms supply most of the world’s cultured freshwater pearls. So I feel that pearls have been tugging at me throughout my life.”

The human and animal side

The technical composition of pearls and the factors behind historic prices are among the topics she examines in the book, as are the science and economic impact of cultured specimens. But Shen looks beyond pearls’ luster to the environmental and human angles.

“I think what I most wanted to share was an appreciation for the people whose labor brings us precious objects,” she says. “Today, cultured pearls — especially freshwater — are plentiful, but I hope that while appreciating their beauty, we can also appreciate the people worldwide who make them available to us, and also the lives of the animals in which they grow. We have all these metaphors about priceless pearls; when we view these gems holistically, they really are beyond price.”

In the volume, she describes photographer Catherine Opie’s picture of the famous La Peregrina pearl, “which once belonged to Elizabeth Taylor. Opie turns La Peregrina into a shimmering ghost jewel, reminding us that ‘people, like pear-shaped pearls, are not for consuming,’” she tells Rapaport Magazine, quoting her own text from the end of the book. “In writing this last sentence, my meaning was not that we shouldn’t buy pearls, but that we should treasure them all the more, knowing their human and animal histories.”

Shen hopes her book “appeals to pearl-lovers and those in the jewelry industry, but also to anyone interested in how we can view our connected histories through the lens of one small object.”

Pearl: Nature’s Perfect Gem by Fiona Lindsay Shen is being published in October by Reaktion Books and is available from the University of Chicago Press.

Sarah Siddons’s necklace

In the preface to Pearl: Nature’s Perfect Gem, Fiona Lindsay Shen discusses the portrait of popular 18th-century British actress Sarah Siddons by famed artist Joshua Reynolds. In the painting, Reynolds portrayed her wearing a thick strand of exceptional pearls, infusing them with a natural beauty that twists and glows at the neckline of her dress. It is unclear whether the necklace belonged to Siddons or was borrowed for the sitting, or whether it even existed at all outside the painting, Shen notes in the book. However, the point was that pearls, long associated with sorrow, were the perfect choice to personify the actress’s ability to “plumb the depths of grief.”

Moreover, the image raises the broader question of what pearls meant not only to the actress and the painter in the 1780s, but to “pharaohs, Roman noblewomen, Mughal princes, Mongol conquerors and Hollywood royalty,” Shen writes. “What were they to the lustful and the bereaved, to the renegade and to the society matron? And where might Siddons’s pearls have come from, in terms of their animal origins and their diaspora?”

These questions are among many that the author addresses in the ensuing chapters.

Image: JOSHUA REYNOLDS/Huntington Art Museum


A Paean to Pearls

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