An Ode to the Perfection of Pearls

by Reema Farooqui

A New Book on Pearls which Examines the History and Cultural Significance of this Gem

Pearl – Nature’s Perfect Gem is a book that takes you on a journey of discovery, amazement and reflection, with the lustrous pearl as your guide. This is a must-have book for pearl and jewellery lovers.

Pearl has been written by Fiona Lindsay Shen who is the Director of the Escalette Permanent Collection of Art at Chapman University, California. It is a well-researched book that looks at pearls, not only as a precious gem, but as a historical and cultural icon that has shaped world events.

Pearl Symbolism

From the very first page, this book has you engaged. With Sarah Siddons’ necklace as a luminous starting point, we are shown how the symbolism of pearls has changed over time. “That the same gem could symbolize wasteful luxuriance and chaste discretion is a tribute to its elasticity” writes Shen and, as readers, we nod our heads in agreement.

Shen takes a closer look at how pearls, since antiquity, have either been revered as the gem of the virtuous or condemned as the emblem of vice. The chapters on the seven sins and seven virtues and how they relate to pearls are a pleasure to read. Peopled by fascinating characters, Shen brings alive their stories with compassion and wit.

“Pearls carry the weight of our values and aspirations, our desires and dependencies. Like so many objects we decree precious, they’ve turned us to murder, mayhem and madness, tugging us down through each circle of Hell. But like Dante’s muse Beatrice, they also point us heavenwards.” (pg 179)

Natural Pearls and Cultured Pearls

Shen delves into the science behind the formation of pearls. The book explains the mystery of biomineralization in detail and answers many questions about how the different attributes of pearls help determine their value. She also examines all the reasons why, historically, natural pearls were regarded as the most precious of all gems and how Kōkichi Mikimoto’s visionary work and the ground-breaking advent of cultured pearls changed this entire landscape.

Another aspect of this book which will thrill its readers is the brilliance of Shen’s writing. Her voice comes through beautifully and her prose flows with an uncomplicated ease that is delightful to read. Page after page, Shen’s crisp and succinct writing has a lyricism that makes you want to mark certain passages and read them again and again.

“A pearl is an oyster’s autobiography, but it is also a carrier of tales about our own values and aspirations. We use pearls to fashion ourselves and to speak of our status and environmental awareness. We culture pearls, and pearls culture us.” (pg.136)

Pearls world history culture
Giambattista Tiepolo,  The Banquet of Cleopatra, 1744, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Felton bequest 1933

Additionally, the book features beautiful illustrations that bring alive the text. It is a treat to read about the opening of Mikimoto’s Ginza store in 1907 and see the advertisement that was published in the Japan Times to announce it. Or, to see a photograph of Bahraini pearl merchants in the 1940s, sitting with American servicemen, discussing pearls and prices as you read about the historic pearl fishing industry of the Persian Gulf.

The True Cost of Coveting Pearls

Shen has dedicated this book to “the memory of the indentured and enslaved pearl divers who for centuries brought us pearls.” This is a sobering thought and an idea that is repeated at various places throughout the book. Quite often, we only consider the value jewellery connoisseurs place on this gem without reflecting on the toll the retrieval of this gem placed on the unnamed tens of thousands of divers and slaves who lost their lives while plumbing the depths of the oceans in search of this treasure.

Pearls world history culture
Box and cover, Japan late 19th century, shibayama technique carved mother-of-pearl and tinted ivory, silver, lacquered wood, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (gift of anonymous donor)

Pearl – Nature’s Perfect Gem is undoubtedly a book for pearl and jewellery lovers but it’s also a book for anyone interested in learning more about world history and culture, seen through the lens of this lustrous gem. It is a work of immense scope and erudition, but Shen makes it accessible and engaging with her distinctive and very enjoyable writing.

As Shen observes, pearls are the most human of gems. Created by an animal, they have been coveted for their sublime luminosity, largely without any consideration for the sacrifices involved in acquiring them. It is Shen’s emphasis on the very human connection we have to this gem, a connection that has been tinged by both virtue and vice, that makes Pearl such a compelling read. If you plan to read just one jewellery book this year, let it be Pearl – Nature’s Perfect Gem.

Pearl-Nature’s Perfect Gem can be purchased at The University of Chicago Press or at Reaktion Books Ltd.

You can find out more about Fiona Lindsay Shen on her website

My thanks to Fiona Lindsay Shen for trusting me to write a review about her book and to Helen McCusker at Reaktion Books Ltd.

Featured Image: René Lalique, laurel leaves brooch, c. 1903, pink pearl, mother-of-pearl, enamel, gold, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

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