Christmas Pearls: winter light


This picture, taken in the forest in Boxing Day, made me think of the descriptions of frost fairs in Virginia Woolf’s book, “Orlando”:

 “All the time they seemed to be skating on fathomless depths of air, so blue the ice had become; and so glassy smooth was it that they sped quicker and quicker to the city with the white gulls circling about them, and cutting in the air with their wings the very same sweeps that they cut on the ice with their skates.”

Frost fairs on the frozen river Thames enabled the city’s residents to skate or glide on ice before modern processes were invented to create ice rinks in the late nineteenth century. With the invention of processes to make and maintain indoor ice rinks, the popularity of skating grew in the 1920s and 30s. Fashioning Winter celebrates the glamour of city skating with a display of skates and pictures, curated by Beatrice Behlen, Senior Curator of Fashion and Decorative Arts at the Museum of London.

In her 1928 novel, Orlando, dedicated to Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf added to the romance of skating when she set London’s frost fair as the backdrop for Orlando’s love affair with the Russian princess, Sasha, herself dressed in “velvet and pearls”.

Christmas Pearls: pearly kings and other things


The Victorians began to create jewellery using a variety of new materials, often deriving from their fascination with the science of the natural world. From jet used in mourning jewels to keepsakes made of human hair, almost any organic material was liable to be crafted into something. Out of this trend, mother-of-pearl began to be widely used for pearl buttons in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Nacre can be sourced from a range of molluscs and so mother-of-pearl was a much more accessible material than pearls themselves. In London, it became common practice for market traders to distinguish their seniority by sewing mother-of-pearl buttons on their clothes and this gave rise to the “Pearly King”. An East London phenomenon, Pearly Kings and Queens are charity collectors who draw attention to themselves by their flamboyantly decorated black suits.

With the Maison Martin Margiela mother-of-pearl encrusted jacket, the trend has come full circle as precious material was first made accessible to all; inspired creation and mutation and was finally re-evaluated and re-created as an object of artisanship.

Christmas Pearls: Encrustacean


Fashioning Winter’s White Perspectives display, curated by Sofia Hedman and Serge Martynov contains a Maison Martin Margiela kimono-style jacket, entirely encrusted with mother-of-pearl buttons. Its an eye-catching and very beautiful piece and one would imagine that it would be extremely flattering to wear, reflecting and refracting light back onto its wearer.

It recalls Kunihiko Morinaga’s “Folded Jacket” and “Full Metal Jacket” from his 2007-08 Anrealage collections celebrating the obsessive nature of craftsmanship. The former is encrusted with 5,000 white buttons, the latter with no less than 15,000 gold-coloured buttons. Morinaga himself was inspired as a student by Maison Martin Margiela’s conceptual designs and by the motto, “God is in the details”.

One can’t help wondering just how many spare buttons these jackets might come with……

Christmas Pearls: beauty in the mishape


Baroque pearls, with their odd shapes and ridges, seem never to have achieved quite the cachet of round pearls. One person who fully appreciated their individuality and artistic potential was the jeweller, Fulco Verdura. His early life was spent in Sicily, absorbing baroque style in the architecture and art around him. Later he travelled to Venice and to Paris where he met Coco Chanel and formed a historic design partnership, creating the famous byzantine cuffs.

By the 1940s Verdura had moved to the US and built a highly original and successful business there. Some of his most celebrated pieces were pins or brooches, which had become very fashionable in the 40s as a way of lightening up otherwise sober suits.

Verdura began to design a series of pins based on single baroque pearls, embellishing them to create animal forms – a swan, a camel, an elephant, even a rhinoceros – whatever inspired his interest. His design process was simple: he put the pearl onto a sheet of paper and drew around it, adding different heads and tails, before setting stones about it. His designs recalled the grotesques popular during the Renaissance.

It has become a cliché to pair the words “flawless” or “perfect” with pearls, but sometimes it’s the misfit that packs a greater punch.

Christmas Pearls: perfection and renewal

 mcbean venus

Fashioning Winter shows a series of Christmas cards sent by the surrealist photographer, Angus McBean in a display curated by Alistair O’Neil, Reader of Fashion History and Theory at Central Saint Martins. In one of the early images from the 1950s, McBean includes himself amongst those present at the birth of  Venus in a pastiche of Botticelli’s famous image.

Roman mythology placed the origin of the pearl with the birth of Venus. As the goddess emerged from the water, the droplets falling from her body turned into pearls as they fell to the ground. The myth also highlights the association of pearls with renewal through their origins in water.

Pearls have continued to attract myth even up to present times. In Jean Giraudoux’s play, The Madwoman of Chaillot, one of the characters exclaims: “Everyone knows that when you wear pearls, little by little they become real.” It may not make every pearl-wearer a Venus incarnate but it’s a nice thought.

Christmas Pearls: protection


In Indian gem mythology, flawless pearls were thought to protect against misfortune and strings of pearls became popular with kings, sometimes with pendants bearing sacred texts. Pearls were also an important element of Mughal jewellery, set alongside other coloured gems.

In her memoir, A Princess Remembers, Gayatri Devi, the Maharani of Jaipur recalls seeing her husband’s father, the Maharajah, dressed in traditional style: “jodhpurs, a jacket fastened with gold buttons, a turban, heavy gold earrings, strings of pearls around his neck and anklets on his feet.”

Indian jewellery has remained a major influence for designers. In the 1930s, Cartier was commissioned to re-set fabulous gems owned by maharajahs and, in the process melded art deco and ancient Mughal styles. In the 1940s and 50s, Fulco Verdura was similarly influenced by Mughal and Byzantine design in his use of oddly-shaped baroque pearls

Today, jewellery remains an important industry in India with over 50% of production feeding a growing domestic market. Adornment is an integral part of daily life, embedded in rites, rituals and family celebrations. Each gemstone has meaning and planetary connections and choice of gems is often influenced by horoscope readings to deliver good fortune.

Jewellery’s talismanic properties are not only confined to India.  The idea of a locket or pair of earrings that bring luck or memories of a loved one is a familiar form of protection and good fortune or sometimes just a way of carrying someone alongside us on our way.

Christmas Pearls: power (2)


Coco Chanel knocked the stuffing out of pearl jewellery. Famous for mixing real and costume jewels in prodigious quantities, in many of her portraits she is shown draped in string upon string of pearls.

Her designs for jewels were very personal to her and often influenced by her private life – either by the personal pieces gifted to her or by her work with other designers or lovers.  Amongst the latter was Paul Iribarnegaray, also known as Iribe, a designer and illustrator. His hallmark was a baroque style that used large stones and mixed translucent with opaque gems, both elements that came to be associated with Chanel’s own style. Later, her designs with Fulco Verdura took on a more Byzantine style, producing the classic Chanel cuffs bearing maltese crosses with striking colour combinations of polished cabochon stones set alongside large pearls.

Jewels would have had many individual meanings for Chanel, but the pearls were paramount. Faced with an industrial dispute early in her career, she made it clear from where she drew her power and authority: “Go and fetch my pearls. I will not go up to the ateliers until I have them around my neck.”

Christmas Pearls: power (1)


The original tudor Somerset House was briefly occupied by the princess Elizabeth, later Elizabeth I. The building was recently completed and had been seized from its original owner, the Duke of Somerset on his arrest and execution for treason. Elizabeth lived in the house for five years before her accession to the throne in 1558.

Pearls have a powerful association with Elizabeth I. During her reign she developed a personal iconography as the Virgin Queen, drawing on both religious and maternal sentiment. Pearls, as symbols of purity since medieval times, played a central part in this imagery.

Rather as the statues of Roman emperors grew when the image and iconography of empire started to eclipse reality, so as Elizabeth’s reign advanced, her love and use of pearls seemed to intensify.  Seamstresses transferred her collection of pearls between her dresses as she wore them. The 1588 Armada portrait shows Elizabeth at the apogee of her power,  wearing a dress encrusted with pearls, pearls woven through her hair and eight ropes of pearls draped at her waist. The image speaks of purity, lustre, lavish wealth and power.

Christmas Pearls: purity and preciousness


Medieval readers loved metaphor. The whole phenomenon of courtly love and romance poetry was built on allegory as a way of giving substance to otherwise abstract virtues like love, courage or humility. The late fourteenth century poem, Pearl, places the jewel at the centre of the narrative as the embodiment of purity and preciousness. In the poem it is used variously to signify the death of a child, immortality, celestial wisdom. The storyline concerns a bereaved father who dreams of a vision of a pearlescent maiden who comforts him with the news that his “pearl”, the infant, is among the saved with whom he can be reunited after death. By the end of the poem, the dreamer willingly commits his “pearl” to heaven and gains peace.

The poet reinforces the metaphor with a pen picture of the pearly maiden, her dress entirely covered in pearls and wearing a crown of pure white pearl. Heaven itself is likened to the pearl, where every gate is made of a single, unfading pearl. The advice of the maiden to the dreamer is that a matchless pearl can help him secure his own entrance into heaven. It’s a moving piece, written at a time when infant mortality would have been an all-too-frequent part of daily life and a reminder that even when death was so prevalent, the pain of loss needed to be assuaged with a vision of hope embedded in light and lustre.

Over 600 years later, we still hear the echoes of these allegories today in notions of modern day chivalry or the associations attached to a single strand of pearls, whether they are paired up with a prom dress, bridal gown or a leather jacket.

Christmas Pearls: popularity and proliferation

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.