If pearls began their fashion rehabilitation when they became Michelle Obama’s jewellery trademark, they surely reach their zenith with the new exhibition at the V&A, in partnership with the Qatar Museums Authority. Tracing the history and trade of pearls from the Romans to avant-garde contemporary jewellery, showstoppers among the 200 pieces on display include the Medieval Hylle Jewel, an earring worn by Charles I at his execution, tiaras owned by Victorian nobility and pearl-studded coats from India and China, alongside pearls made for screen stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor.
If this plethora of pearls provides inspiration to buy, the museum shop is worth a detour, with its interesting selection of exclusive designs. Adventurous pieces come from a collaboration with first-year jewellery students at Central Saint Martins School of Art. Of three designs, the most spectacular is a necklace of freshwater pearls by Harriet Williams (first picture, £180), the gems hand-painted to replicate the bright iridescent shades of a pearl seen under the microscope, just one left plain in contrast. Lili Murphy Johnson’s humorous steel bracelet is inspired by “train track” orthodontic braces, with freshwater pearls as “teeth” (third picture, £95), while Danya Xie’s architectural ebony ring has freshwater pearls on the inside as an occasionally glimpsed, private pleasure for the wearer (second picture, £250). Just seven of the necklaces and bracelets have been made, and only six of the rings.
The most intricately made piece of the selection (which also includes a Lulu Guinness scarf and various pearl trinkets) is a statement necklace made of hundreds of irregular freshwater keshi pearls in shades of soft gold – an opulent but essentially simple design with a silver clasp (£975). Just one exists, though it can be remade to order. Slightly smaller is the five-string Sunset necklace, each strand in different shaped and sized keshi pearls in shades of iridescent cream and peachy pink, also with a silver clasp. This costs £350 and comes in a limited edition of three.
With all of these beautiful designs on offer, there is really no excuse for not owning your own pearl of great price.