The luster of 'Pearls' is focus of new exhibition

Two museums string together a dazzling story.

"Take back your mink, take back your pearls/ what made you think I was one of those girls?" sings the unhappily-in-love Adelaide in the Broadway musical "Guys and Dolls," illustrating how pearls have been deemed time-honored and expensive love tokens. Now, a highly serious new blockbuster exhibition co-sponsored by New York's American Museum of Natural History and Chicago's Field Museum adds scientific weight and historical context to the shiny, oyster-produced orbs.

On view in New York until April 14, 2002, and followed by a run at the Field Museum from June 28, 2002, to Jan. 5, 2003, "Pearls" boasts a total of about 600 objects on display, including specimens of mollusks, pearls, paintings, pearl artifacts, and jewelry.

Around a half-million individual pearls are on view, counting all of the loose pearls, along with those used in jewelry, textiles, and other artifacts. A lush accompanying book authored by the exhibit's curators, "Pearls: A Natural History" (Harry Abrams, 232 pp., $49.50) is further icing on the cake, and solace for those visitors struck by the irresistible grabby urge to take something home.

The four curators, scientists Neil Landman and Paula Mikkelsen from the American Museum and Rudiger Bieler and Bennet Bronson from the Field, have gathered objects not only from their own museums but also from about 100 other private and public collections from as far away as Russia and Tahiti.

They include celebrity items, such as the cultured pearl necklace bought by Joe DiMaggio for his bride, Marilyn Monroe, during their honeymoon in Japan in 1954. Even more historically important are the first-ever free cultured pearls made from freshwater pearl mussels in Sweden, produced experimentally in the 1740s by Carl von Linné - better known as Linnaeus - the legendary naturalist.

Asked to name their personal favorites in the show, the curators bristle, as if required to choose a favorite child. However, Mr. Landman concedes that he feels particularly fond of the "fossil pearls from 40 million years ago, which still retain their nacreous luster. We are used to thinking of pearls in the present day, and it is important to recognize that pearls have been around probably as long as mollusks have, some 530 million years."

Ms. Mikkelsen is "fascinated by" some of the "unusual natural pearls from nontraditional molluscan sources," such as the queen conch of the Caribbean that produces pink, porcelain-like natural pearls. One of them is featured in an early 20th-century Tiffany platinum necklace.

She adds that an enormous brown pearl, about one inch in diameter, forms part of a "spectacular" modern German-made brooch in the shape of a Tarantula. Mr. Bieler states that he is pleased by the Saxon Necklace, a string of 177 highest-quality European freshwater pearls that were once part of the Saxon crown jewels. (This is the first time this priceless item will be shown outside of Germany.)

Passionate researchers all, the curators are well aware that in parts of Asia and Latin America, pearl fans are not satisfied with looking at them, but feel the urge to eat them and spread them over their bodies.

In countries like Mexico and China, ground pearls are used in medications and cosmetics. Indeed, the Abrams book states "... the logical conclusion is that the consumption of pearls cannot hurt and might well be beneficial."

Although none of the curators has ingested any ground pearls - supposed to cure heart palpitations and "dispel worries" - Mikkelsen says she "can attest to the quality of pearl hand lotion purchased in southeastern China."

Landman adds that, although the meat of most pearl oysters is not eaten, being "only distantly related to the edible oysters and [having a] very different taste," he has bravely sampled some, and "[vouches] for the taste of the scallop-like silver-lipped pearl oyster ... from Australia, which is very mild and quite tasty when sautéed.... [Japan's] Akoya Pearl Oysters are more strongly flavored...."

Apart from edibility, the exhibit also addresses such timely topics as ecological threats to pearl cultivation by typhoons and pollution. The fate of pearl divers is also discussed sensitively. In the 1500s, Venezuelan pearl divers impressed into service by colonizing Europeans had difficult lives.

Today, among the few regions where pearl divers are found is Australia, where divers, Landman explains, make "eight or nine 45-minute dives per day in cold, murky water, contending with poisonous or dangerous sea life such as sharks, sea snakes, and sea-nettles [jellyfish]."

For visitors in search of handy household hints, some basic questions are addressed, such as how to spot an artificial pearl - if it feels smooth rather than gritty when rubbed against the end of the teeth, it may be imitation. Or, seen under a hand lens, the surface of a real pearl has a so-called "fingerprint pattern," caused by the overlapping layers of calcium carbonate crystals (nacre).

The exhibition also addresses why some cultures, such as Japan and Southeast Asia, did not value them as much as collectors elsewhere did before the 20th century.

While pondering such paradoxes, visitors may admire the Aphrodite Pin, loaned by the British Museum in London and billed as "one of the oldest surviving cultural objects incorporating pearls." Originating from the Sanctuary of Aphrodite in Cyprus, it dates from 300 BC. Visitors should try to make time to visit the museums before the exhibition's generous lenders decide, as Adelaide sings in "Guys and Dolls," to "take back their pearls...."

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