Magazine article The New Yorker

The White Ball

Magazine article The New Yorker

The White Ball

Article excerpt

I once heard of an East African farmer who, in the nineteen-twenties, traded his vast flax plantation for a much smaller plot devoted to damask roses. He liked the notion of being able to transport an entire harvest to Paris in a suitcase, attar being worth more, per gram, than cocaine. I like that notion myself. Every writer's ambition is to distill the truth irreducibly from a thorny subject, and it is one reason I am such a fan of natural pearls. There is probably no product on earth that more radically dramatizes the discrepancy between the size of a treasure and its value.

The most comprehensive exhibit ever devoted to pearls, and to the paradoxes of their natural and social history, has just opened at the American Museum of Natural History. While the scholarly apparatus of the show is all one would expect--evolutionary trees, analyses of manganese pollution, artifacts from the button industry, a scale model of a pearl fishery, and an interactive display of a pearl's crystalline structure magnified fifty thousand times--its glamour comes as a surprise. Malacology, the study of mollusks, isn't a discipline noted for its sex appeal, and, despite the recent fashion comeback of mangy fur, the museum hasn't become a hangout for the Bryant Park crowd. Yet the baubles on display are as hard-core fabulous as anything for sale at Fred Leighton--jeweller to the stars--and mollusks turn out to be more creative than a lot of designers, and perhaps just as snappy when provoked: they'll sever a finger without thinking twice.

One learns, with considerable admiration, that nearly any member of the phylum--and there are more than a hundred thousand species living in saltwater and fresh, tropical and temperate climes--can, in theory, produce a pearl, its shell efficiently forecasting the gem's color. The pearl from a Queen Conch ranges from a pale blush to a deep fuchsia, and can grow to the size of a goodly bird's egg. The black-lipped pearl oyster from the South Pacific secretes a desirably large, iridescent sphere that has a metallic lustre ranging from gunmetal-gray to onyx, with tinges of blue, violet, rose, or green. Baler shells from the South China Sea yield a "melo" pearl the size and color of a Cavaillon melon ball. Sedentary bivalves (mollusk couch potatoes) like the clam, the oyster, and the mussel are the most reliable producers, but even a relatively antsy gastropod like the garden snail can, on occasion, deliver its non-nacreous little bundle. Abalone pearls are often cusp-shaped and nearly always baroque--an adjective that was used to describe irregular pearls before it was, in the late Renaissance, applied to art or architecture straining neurotically at its classical fetters. Jewellers have been inspired to set the suggestive, sometimes freakish bulges of baroque pearls as figurines: a swan, a snake, a dolphin, a bug, a Bacchus, an overfed baby in a cradle of gold filigree. A selection of their handiwork is on display, but none of it is as curious as the Chinese freshwater-mussel shells blistered with pearlized figures of Buddha and Chairman Mao, or the life-size model of the largest pearl ever found--a brainlike, fourteen-pound excrescence from a Philippine giant clam that is known as the Pearl of Allah. These are but a few of the show's strange and luminous charms. It is hard to think of another subject, particularly these days, that could find some common ground between Muhammad and Chanel.

Pearls have been a fixture of the fashion scene even longer than Karl Lagerfeld has--about five hundred million years--and have been prized since antiquity by nearly every culture in the world. To theologians of the major monotheisms, they represented spiritual perfection. The ancients supposed them to be frozen tears of the gods. Early naturalists believed that oysters were impregnated by raindrops, or the dew, or were shocked by bolts of lightning at sea. Later it was thought that they were seeded by grains of sand. …

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