Pearl Series


The Pearl Principle or: A flash, a pipe and a hole

Lunar; the power of water; the essence of the moon and ruler of the tides; germination; cosmic life; the divine essence; the life-giving power of the maternal archetype; the female principle of the ocean; self-lumination(1); initiation; justice. It was believed that the pearl was created when a flash of lightning penetrated the oyster(2), which was seen as the union of fire and water, both fertile forces, standing for birth, rebirth and fertility. The pearl also symbolizes innocence, purity, virginity, perfection, humility and restraint, as well as transcendent wisdom, intellectual enlightenment; spiritual awareness; the mind per se. It embodies the blossoming of the flower of light. The pearl is one of the Eight Precious Things; the heart of Buddha; the Third Eye. It represents the feminine yin principle, immortality(3); auspicious premonition; the genius of concealment. Redemption; Christ; the Savior; the Word of God; baptism; spiritual mercy; heaven.(4)

In spite of their association with tears, pearls are generally regarded as symbols of virtue which – according to the Medieval scholar Lonicerus – strengthen the living spirit emanating from the heart. And there is a saying among Eastern European jewelers: the pearls we believe in bring us tears, which are colored silver like the moon, but are tears of joy.

There are no end of myths, fairy tales and murder mysteries surrounding the pearl. Lust comes to mind – femmes fatales, vamps. Evil is calling: the conch opens. Let us omit the coy Aphrodite of Ancient Greece, who even back then attracted the salacious advances of the cloven-hoofed Pan(5). Let us forget Bottocelli’s beauty born of sea foam, La nascita de Venere, who casts her eyes shyly to the side(6). The winds blowing from the top left-hand corner of the picture are not able to rock the scallop from which she has emerged. With a stiff breeze and hard surf she would stand quite differently on her “board”.

Did Mark Anthony nibble on Cleopatra’s ear conch? The Roman scholar Plinius reports that in order to prove her love to the Roman general, the Egyptian queen bet she could prepare the most costly of all banquets for him. Anthony was amazed to find just two empty plates and two glasses of wine. Cleopatra released a pear-shaped pearl from one of her earlobes, dropped it into her glass and sipped the calcium carbonate and conchiolin which then dissolved in her drink and was worth 30 million sesterces = 0.85 million ounces of fine silver = 1,560,850 euros – as an aperitif. Mark Anthony capitulated, and instead of tasting the second pearl presumably turned his attentions to the one or other of Cleopatra’s conches.

Even the ancient Arabs (oh boy!) compared pearls with shimmering teeth. But it was left to Salvador Dali to place a double row of white pearls between a pair of full, ruby lips(7) in trivial, surrealist style to create a brooch for a woman’s blouse. Blinding promise flashing seductively from a half-open mouth: an oralized version of the conch and the pearl.

The torso trembles, hips, thighs and buttocks move. The hands are active, too – they touch all parts of the body as in ecstasy. Then there are inward and outward movements of the knees and feet. The dancer arches his back or even drops into a squat.(8)

The Charleston, regarded as provocative and immoral, and highly popular at the end of the Belle Époque, was always danced with long pearl necklaces that linked all the senses together, swinging in dangling loops across neck, stomach and groin. The “teeth” moving from here to there and back again – and as is well-known, behind the teeth – like a mollusk – lurks the tongue.

Still not enough? Do you know Tampopo – the first Japanese noodle western (1985, directed by Juzo Itami)? If so, you will be familiar with the following legendary scene. Dripping wet, an ama emerges from the sea, traditionally draped in white. She hands the “man in the white suit”, a member of the Yakuza, a freshly opened shell. Unrestrained, he greedily slurps the oyster and hurts his mouth on the sharp scale. And then something completely unexpected happens. The pearl diver approaches his face and licks across his bleeding lips with a long, fluid tongue. And to this day, the fans of this ramen soup road movie are asking themselves whether there was a pearl in the oyster … did you see it twinkle?

It is said that if the right woman wears the right pearl necklace at the right time, even the toughest guys turn soft. Pearl necklaces are devastating: they make women irresistible to men. I would have liked to have invented the pearl necklace. The principle is brilliant, as with all simple things, as ancient as the oldest known examples of the use of jewelry by human beings(9); those tiny snail shells, bored through in the same spot with a small hole some 100,000 years ago, to be placed on a slender thread and worn round the neck. Excavated in Qued Djebbana in Algeria and in Skuhl near Haifa, Israel, anthropologists regard these “pearls” as the earliest evidence of symbolically meaningful objects(10) or – as they call it – information storage outside the human brain(11): quite simply the roots of human culture(12). If I had invented the pearl necklace – my goodness, just think of the royalties: that wouldn’t be bad, even for the last thousand year

The pearl necklace is so brilliant that most goldsmiths, jewelry designers, craft jewelry artists and the rest do not even both to try to redefine, vary or interpret this object of desire. The few attempts at a new artistic approach to this classic item have tended to be miserable failures. Yet it is possible to coax new facets out of it all the same: and here it is, the exception.

Dishonest Pearls, a piece of jewelry created by Laura Deakin in 2006, has all the features of a pearl necklace at first glance: the string of bead-like elements, the spherical shapes, the connecting string, pearl luster, the graceful, cascading appearance when worn around the neck. Yet the ingredients, so we read with surprise, are polyester filler, silk and synthetic nacre(13). And, of course, we see that the beads are concave rather than convex. What has happened?

Laura Deakin has pressed cheap pearl necklace imitations of glass beads with applied fake mother-of-pearl into filler, which has in turn been pressed into hemispherical negative moulds. The silk thread that connects the individual husks was embedded from the start. Once the plastic mass has hardened, the filler sticks so powerfully to the surface that the mother-of-pearl imitation is stripped off the beads when separated and the shimmering skin of the pearls glows from the inside, like a cast. By destroying the original false pearl, an effigy is created, which is entirely authentic: one might describe the process as deconstruction – a common artistic strategy. The pearl is dead – long live the pearl!

By means of this brilliantly simple, yet complex process, Laura Deakin transforms the pearl necklace into a highly confusing mirror image of itself. At first sight one would call it a pearl necklace – which is not completely untrue considering its filler beads. More than anything else, however, it is the luster glowing from inside the husks that tempts one to apply this ambivalent and ambiguous designation. Seen in the right light, we have known this since Maurits Cornelius Escher’s optical illusions that concave shapes can suddenly turn into their very opposite and appear convex, making fools of us and leading our eyes by the nose.

Ceci n’est pas un collier de perles. With René Magritte in mind, whose pipe(14) painted in oil colors cannot be filled with tobacco and smoked, one wonders whether Deakin’s work of art ultimately is a pearl necklace or simply the image of one – or as Magritte called it more accurately, une représentation(15). Due to the marked transformations it has involved, it cannot be described as a reproduction. In fact in both cases a new image has been created – an irritation, a challenge to visual perception and thought. However, regardless of the visual aspect Dishonest Pearls remains a three-dimensional object that can certainly be worn by somebody as a necklace.

Even without a woman or a seductive look, I bow to this “representation of a pearl necklace”. Voilà, here I lie – and cannot be any other way. Overwhelmed by rapture.

However, the small, shimmering husks can also be seen as a reincarnation of the lost pearls. Grey, rough and jagged on the outside, glossy and iridescent on the inside, they could represent a new generation of pearl oysters, ready to meet a single washed up grain of sand – a tiny, lingering, recalcitrant intruder – and cover it with a fine layer of pearl luster for its own protection. After all, a pearl is nothing more than this: a fully assimilated alien, an asylum-seeker glazed with calcium carbonate and conchiolin.

Otto Künzli

Notes and sources:

  1. The pearl’s gloss is known as luster; the iridescent interference light that glows from its depths is called orient and the weight of pearls used to be measured in grans or grains. The unit of measurement was a grain of wheat weighing 0.05 grams
  2. “The divine flash of lightning from heaven passed into the pure shell, the Mother of God, and a precious pearl; Jesus, was created. It is written that Christ, the Pearl, was born from the divine flash of lightning.” From Johannes Damascenus, born 675 AD. ( The Kurds regard the pearl as an embryo slumbering at the bottom of the shell uterus (
  3. In ancient China it was the custom to place a pearl in the mouth of the Emperor when he died, as this promised eternal life.
  4. A plethora of symbolic meanings, associations and anecdotes can be gleaned from encyclopedias on the subject of pearls and shells. This enumeration is based on just one section from a single source, abbreviated and edited. J.C. Cooper, Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols, p. 136, Thames and Hudson Ltd. London 1978.
  5. e.g. Statue group in marble; Aphrodite, Pan and Eros, found on the island of Delos, around 100 BC, National Archeological Museum, Athens.
  6. One of the most famous oil paintings (1486) by the Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli (Uffizi, Florence). For comparison, there is a painting in the same museum entitled Venus of Urbino by Titian (1538). The recumbent Venus looks directly at the viewer, confronting him with her nakedness.
  7. Ruby Lips, Dali – A Study of his Art-in-Jewels, p. 36, plate XIII, The Owen Cheatham Foundation, New York, 1959.
  8. Description of the Charleston dance, 1925.
  9. Marian Vanhearen, Sience, vol. 312, p. 1731, 2006.
  10. Michael Simm, Eitelkeit vor 77 000 Jahren, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Panorama, April 16th 2004.
  11. Maggie Fox, Old beads push back birth of creativity, News in Science, April 16, 2004.
  12. s this the earliest sign of human culture? New Scientist, April 10, 2004, p. 8.
  13. Des Wahnsinns Fette Beute, exhibition catalogue, p. 133, Die Neue Sammlung – State Museum of Applied Art and Design in the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich. Florian Hufnagl (ed., Arnoldsche Art Publishers Stuttgart, 2008.
  14. La trahison des Images, 1929 (literal translation: “The Betrayal of Images”), better known by the name Ceci n’est pas une pipe (“This is not a pipe”), is one of the best known oil paintings by the French surrealist René Magritte. It consists of the naturalistic portrayal of a pipe, underneath which appears the sentence Ceci n’est pas une pipe. Today it hangs in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California.
  15. René Magritte as quoted in Harry Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, p. 71.
Dishonest Pearls, 2007
Dishonest Pearls, 2007
Falsely Filled Pearls, 2007