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May, 2004 - Nr. 5


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Population Dwindling

PEARLS: A Natural History

  September 18, 2004 - January 9, 2005

A Dazzling Display of Nature’s Perfect Gems

The exhibition was organized by the American Museum of Natural History, New York, in collaboration with The Field Museum, Chicago.

(Toronto, Ontario, April 12, 2004) – Let the splendour of some of the world’s most sought-after treasures captivate you at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), in the acclaimed exhibition, Pearls: A Natural History. The American Museum of Natural History, New York, in collaboration with The Field Museum, Chicago, has organized this fascinating exhibition, which traces the natural and cultural history of pearls. From September 18, 2004 to January 9, 2005, the ROM’s Garfield Weston Exhibition Hall is the sole Canadian venue to host the most comprehensive presentation ever mounted on pearls. This interdisciplinary exhibition perfectly fits the ROM’s twin mandates of nature and culture, and will hold great appeal for visitors of all ages.

Long associated with royalty, glamour and virtue, pearls have adorned religious and secular art, been the cause of conquests and exploration, and fuelled worldwide commerce for centuries. However, unlike other gems, pearls are developed within living organisms. Pearls: A Natural History features more than 500 spectacular objects, including nearly a half a million individual pearls, drawn from major museums and private collections from around the world. Highlighted are lustrous 50-million-year-old fossil pearls, a replica of a 14.5-pound pearl, the largest ever harvested, and of course, fabulous jewellery and fashions that have adorned the likes of Queen Victoria and Marie Antoinette, and celebrities such as Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. This multi-faceted exhibition is sure to interest everyone - from museum visitor to gem connoisseur to biologist.

"This extraordinary exhibition embodies our dual mandate of natural science and human culture," said William Thorsell, CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum. "Most people see pearls as beautiful gems, but few understand the complexity of their formation, farming, and harvest. This exhibition incorporates biology, gemology, anthropology, mineralogy and ecology with rare and valuable decorative arts objects from many cultures to tell the intriguing history of nature’s gems."

The Exhibition

Over the last two years, Pearls has traveled to five museums, garnering accolades for its exceptional standard of graphic design and communications. It received an Honor Award for Interpretive Design from the Society for Environmental Graphic Design. Through the exhibition’s seven enlightening and visually stunning sections, visitors will learn the history and science of pearls and view the glamorous jewellery, fashions, and ornamental pieces that they become. The section titles are underlined below.

In the Introduction area, visitors enter a virtual undersea environment where life-sized moving images of pearl divers plunge to the seafloor retrieving the treasures. Pearl diving – without artificial air supply or wet suits - was the principal means of harvesting pearls for centuries. This section also introduces visitors to pearls’ historical associations with tradition, royalty, glamour and religion. Visitors can examine several magnificent objects, such as a 19th century Russian icon with a cover encrusted in pearls and gemstones, a classic cultured pearl necklace given to Marilyn Monroe by Joe DiMaggio during their 1954 honeymoon in Japan.

The desire for pearls became prominent before the cutting and faceting of gemstones was developed, creating a flourishing international trade from ancient times. For more than 4,000 years, the Indian Ocean – specifically the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Mannar - was the hub of the world’s pearl markets. During the Renaissance, Indian pearls arrived in Europe en masse to be worn by monarchs and nobles. The dominance of this pearl-producing region shifted in the 16th century when Christopher Columbus, seeking a quicker route to the Orient, discovered great quantities of pearls off the Venezuelan and Panama coasts. Just a century and a half later, the pearl-bearing oysters of the Caribbean and Panama were close to extinct, and as a result, the traditional pearl-producing areas of the Indian Ocean reclaimed their markets. In the 1920s, Japan then came to the forefront, after the success of techniques to produce cultured pearls, which were then accepted as "real" by the rest of the world.

The biology, microstructure and chemistry of pearls are as important as the jewels they become. What are Pearls? explores the properties that give them their shape, colour and allure. Visitors can examine in detail the layered structure of a pearl magnified up to 50,000 times its actual size. A video presentation, interactive displays, and large wall-sized images of historical and modern pearl objects illustrate that no two pearls are alike, nor are they always flawless, pure white spheres. Visitors can browse through a spectacular selection of multi-coloured pearls and view the unique iridescence of 50-million-year-old lustrous fossil pearls and a 100-million-year-old fossil ammonite.

But how were these precious gifts of nature formed? To ancient Romans, they were frozen tears of gods. Greeks attributed pearls to lightning strikes at sea. Until the 7th century, scholars held that pearls were solidified dewdrops, captured by clams. And according to popular lore, pearls were formed from a grain of sand. The Central Gallery dispels these myths by giving visitors an overview of the many species of mollusks and the variety of pearls they produce. Mollusks, soft-bodied invertebrate animals bearing a hard external shell, inhabit both salt- and freshwaters. Pearls are primarily composed of calcium carbonate and are formed when a foreign particle – any irritating intruder such as a parasitic worm or a small crab – becomes inadvertently lodged between the mollusk’s shell and inner lining (or mantle.) This irritant becomes the centre or nucleus of the pearl. The mantle secretes a substance called nacre (or mother-of-pearl) that coats the object, thus creating concentric layers upon layers around the nucleus. Pearls, whether natural or cultured, take on the shape of their nucleus. It is this series of layers that determines both a pearl’s shape and its luster.

Showcased in this section is a large evolutionary tree, studded with pearls and shell specimens, which demonstrates the many relationships between pearl-producing organisms within the phylum Mollusca. Visitors can explore the evolution of mollusks through a computer station and examine a Giant Clam and a replica of the largest known pearl, the Pearl of Allah. This section also introduces visitors to the long-standing connection between royalty and pearls, exemplified by a stunning pearl-and-precious gem brooch given to Queen Victoria of England by her husband, Prince Albert, on their third wedding anniversary in 1843.

This next section focuses on Marine Pearls. Marine mollusks, ranging from pearl oysters and clams to conches and abalone, are the best-known source of pearls. However, visitors will discover that not all marine mollusks produce gem-quality pearls. Each display case is devoted to one type of marine mollusk, its pearls, and beautiful objects made from them. For example, La Paz pearl oysters are displayed next to a 3rd century carved La Paz shell pendant from Ecuador and an 1875 spider brooch made with a black La Paz pearl. A collection of conch pearls illustrates the wide range of colours produced by the Queen Conch. This case also includes a video clip of a Queen Conch leaping through its Caribbean habitat.

Freshwater Pearls are equally diverse and as widespread as their marine counterparts. In this section, a video presentation explores the lakes, rivers, and streams that breed pearls. Freshwater pearls are collected from the waters in North America, Japan and Europe and are used in such jewellery as Tiffany & Company’s chrysanthemum brooch (1904) made of gold, platinum, and diamonds, which features a creative use of Mississippi River pearls. However, nearly half the species of freshwater pearl mussels are extinct or endangered. As pollution and other threats to mollusks’ natural habitats proliferate and pearl-producing species become more specialized, scientists and researchers look for ways to keep mollusks alive, both for their ability to produce such objects of beauty and to preserve the planet’s ecological diversity.

This section also tells the story of Muscatine, Iowa, a small town off the Mississippi River that earned the right to call itself the "Pearl Button Capital of the World" in the early 1900s. With an abundance of thick-shelled American pearl mussels collected from nearby rivers and streams, the town’s mother-of-pearl button factories out-produced more established button-making centres in Europe. Featured here is a button-making machine from the early 1900s. By the middle of the 20th century, most button makers went out of business, largely as a result of the plastic button industry. Today, freshwater mussel shells provide material for bead nuclei, which pearl farmers around the world implant in marine pearl oysters to create cultured pearls.

The following section, Gathering and Culturing Pearls, explores the various ways in which humans have collected, farmed, and cultured pearls throughout history. Various pearl-collecting accessories illustrate the

dangers and limitations of traditional diving methods. This section also traces the history of perliculture, the science of culturing pearls. This process intentionally implants a spherical bead, made from a freshwater pearl mussel shell, within the soft tissues of a mollusk’s body, nurturing it in a controlled environment. Some 1600 years ago, the Chinese began culturing pearls by placing molds with tiny Buddha images in freshwater Cockscomb Pearl Mussels to create Buddha blister pearls. The world’s first spherical cultured pearls were produced in Sweden in 1740 by Carl von Linné (Linnaeus), the naturalist most famous for developing the modern system of scientific nomenclature. Pearl culturing techniques were reinvented at the beginning of the 20th century by Kokichi Mikimoto in Japan. Cultured pearls, considerably less expensive than natural (or fine) pearls, gave way to the common image of the pure white rounded jewels that adorn brides, princesses and movie stars. A video shows how modern pearls are cultured and the tools used in perliculture are displayed.

The final section, Pearls in Human History, traces the human fascination with these gemstones from the Greeks and Romans to modern day. Throughout history, pearls have played many roles, from ritual significance to objects of value and awe, causing conquests all over the world. Modern historians of costume and decorative arts denote the 16th and 17th centuries as The Great Age of Pearls, when these treasures were shipped to the European market from around the world for the adornment of the nobility and monarchs. A handful of 20th century fashion designers, most notably Coco Chanel, embraced them, using the gems in her elegantly casual designs. Now, a simple strand of pearls is a standard part of many women’s wardrobes. This section boasts an impressive array of historically and culturally significant pearls used in jewellery, costumes, textiles and paintings, including a 17th century pearl-encrusted Russian vestment and a 19th century silver Japanese decorative tray inlaid with mother-of-pearl flowers.


A superbly illustrated companion volume entitled Pearls: A Natural History will accompany this exhibition. The 232-page publication contains an excellent overview of the natural and cultural history of pearls and the gorgeous jewellery and decorative pieces they become. Published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. in association with the American Museum of Natural History, New York, and The Field Museum, Chicago, this companion volume includes more than 230 colour photos and archival images. It will be available at the ROM Reproductions Shop.

Inspired complementary programming will be offered during Pearls, including lectures and symposia. More details will follow. An exclusive Pearls Members’ Preview will take place on Friday, September 17,

2004. Pearls will be highlighted in an engaging and glamorous style on the ROM website. Visit www.rom.on.ca for full details just prior to the start of its engagement. Educational content for teachers and students will be included.

Following the success of 2002’s sold-out Material Ball gala celebrating the opening of Elite Elegance: Couture Fashion in the 1950s, Material Ball II - Pearls promises to be the most glamorous event of the year. The date for this celebration of Pearls - A Natural History has been set for Thursday, November 18, 2004. A limited number of patron tables and tickets are available. For further information contact Lori Lytle at the ROM Foundation at 416-586-8064 or loril@rom.on.ca.

Pearls opened in October 2001 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, followed by engagements at The Field Museum in Chicago, The Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta, The Houston Museum of Natural Science in Houston, and The Alden B. Down Museum of Science & Art in Midland, Michigan. After its sole Canadian engagement at the ROM, Pearls will travel to Milwaukee Public Museum then to the Natural Science Museum in Tokyo, Japan, followed by the Natural History Museum of London in London, England.

Admission to Pearls is included with paid general admission (see details below.) Advance, timed tickets will be on sale as of June 1, 2004 through TicketKing at 1-800-461-333 or 416-872-1212 or in person at the ROM. Groups of 20 or more adults may call Mirvish Group Sales at 416-593-4142 or 1-800-724-6420 for information on special rates and private guided tours. Schools and student groups should call the ROM’s Education Department at 416-586-5801. Throughout the engagement, docents from the Department of Museum Volunteers will offer guided tours of the exhibition at regularly scheduled times.

Advance timed tickets for Pearls will be available starting June 1, 2004 by calling TicketKing
at 1-800-461-3333 or by visiting the ROM ticket counter in person.
Admission prices:
Adults $15 on weekdays/ $18 on weekends;
Students & Seniors with ID $12 on weekdays/ $15 on weekends;
Children $10; Infants (4 & under) are admitted free.

During ROM Friday Nights (4:30 - 9:30pm), reduced admission rates for Pearls are:
Adults $10; Seniors, Students and Children $5; Infants (4 & under) free.

Wheelchair access, stroller rentals, and guided gallery tours in English and French are available.
For information on ROM Group Services, please call (416) 586-5859. For 24-hour information in English and French, please call (416) 586-8000 or visit the ROM’s web site at www.rom.on.ca .


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