Natural pearls are extraordinarily rare. Around 1 in 10,000 oysters will contain a jewel-quality specimen. Their unique lustre comes from the light refracted through the layers of nacre that form the pearl and make it look as if it is lit from within.
Though fakes have been made for centuries and the Chinese discovered how to create cultured pearls three thousand years ago, it was the Japanese company, Mikimoto, that refined the process in the 1890s and brought real pearls within the reach of a wider audience.
Japan was already one of the foremost centres of the natural pearl trade but this breakthrough created an overpowering bond between the pearl and Japan. The picture from Fashioning Winter’s Winter Modes display, shows an original illustration from a 1913 journal showing a fantastic white velvet opera cape, encrusted with pearls in the foreground. The model is set against a background that looks very like a woodcut artwork of Japanese peasant life in a style reminiscent of Hiroshige. The garment itself is kimono-like and simple – with this level of shimmering embellishment a simple design is all you need.