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The Pearls and Shells of Qatar

23 September 2013

Two words: pearl and shell – what’s the connection? There’s the obvious – pearls grow in shells (amazingly, any mollusc can grow a pearl, it just needs a tapeworm larva or similar to be trapped inside its walls). Then there’s the less obvious connection, which merits some consideration in a new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A): the currency of the Gulf. I’m talking about Shell oil, and the legacy of the pearl trade.

The exhibition celebrates the history of pearls from ancient Rome to the swanky shopping streets of 21st-century Knightsbridge. But take one look at the sponsors of the show, and there appears beneath the glitz and glamour of stones once worn by Charles I, Catherine the Great, and Marilyn Monroe, a far subtler story about the commerce of East and West.

‘Pearls’ is a collaboration between the V&A and the Qatar Museums Authority and part of the Qatar UK 2013 Year of Culture – a programme of cultural exchanges. It is sponsored by Shell.

The partnership makes good sense. Qatar’s collection of pearls and pearl-related artefacts, as this exhibition shows, is impressive. For much of its history, Qatar thrived on its pearl banks. A huge number of the exquisite pieces of jewellery on display – the necklaces and earrings and grand brooches of empresses, queens, and aristocrats in early modern Europe – have their origins in the Persian/Arabian Gulf and its ensuing trade ventures with the west. Often trade in pearls took place on the sea itself. A wooden case containing scales and equipment with which to test their quality is one of the exhibits.

Though rival banks were discovered beneath the gulfs of Mexico and Venezuela, they quickly dried up in the 17th century under the force of demand. Even men were partial to pearls – the ordinarily restrained George III commissioned a smart coat with beautiful blue enamel and pearl buttons. The preference was generally for the natural pearls of the Middle East over the freshwater varieties found off the coasts of England and Scotland.

But the Gulf could not swim in its natural pearl supply forever. A short video shows the last, as ever precarious, dive for natural pearls taking place off the coast of Qatar in 1972. Already by now the cultured pearl industry, as first and most prolifically exploited by a Japanese entrepreneur called Mikomoto, was conquering the market.

Two years after the last dive, Qatar Petroleum was established. Where once trade ran along strings of pearls, oil took the crown. As if to reinforce that legacy, a new plant run conjointly by Qatar Petroleum and Shell to turn gas to liquid is named Pearl GTL.

Shell, though a giant in Qatar today, is an Anglo-Dutch company. Its name was inspired by a 19th-century Londoner who collected and dealt in antiquities, particularly shells. ‘Shell’ trademarked the kerosene his London company shipped to buyers east of the Suez.

Such a rich history of altered exchange, from pearls to gas, east to west, and back again, is never explicitly realised in the V&A show. Nor is any comparison drawn between the shift from natural to cultured pearls and our vital hunt for replacements for natural energy sources. Pearls, after all, can only ever provide one important part of the picture. But boy, is that part attractive.

‘Pearls’ is at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 19 January 2014.

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