Pearls exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum
Pearls, V&A, September 21 to January 19; £10 (vam.ac.uk)
Diamonds may be a girl's best friend, but pearls predate them as symbols of luxury and opulence, without the association with vulgarity.
Not bad going for grit coated in protective iridescent nacre by itchy molluscs. Prized by the Romans, pearls were the decoration of choice for monarchs "who wore them as a sign of political power and of the prosperity of their lands", according to Beatriz Chadour-Sampson, co-curator of a new exhibition, Pearls, at the V&A museum.
Reader offer: Homes & Property readers get 15 per cent off the exhibition catalogue at the V&A's online shop and across its range of pearls and pearl-inspired items. Visit vandashop.com and quote offer code PEARLS15 (until November 15).
"By medieval times the pearl had become a symbol of power and authority for the Church and for monarchs, but at the same time came to symbolise purity and chastity."
The exhibition looks at the history of pearls from their formation, to how their distribution helped forge trade links around the world. While their best known use is in jewellery, pearls has long been used in interior decoration, from wall coverings to inlay on furniture, or as complete shells to make bowls and cups.
When the Spanish stormed the palaces of the Aztec leader Montezuma, they found the walls studded with pearls, while to the East, Mughal thrones and furniture were routinely set with them. By the 16th & 17th century Gujarat in India specialised in the production of furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl (the oyster's nacre-coated inner shell), which was in hot demand in the royal courts of Europe.
Pearl, in the form of both pearls and mother-of-pearl, found its way into the Wunderkammer of rich European nobles — their "wonder room" for displaying their taste and wealth.
Prized for their rarity and lustre in shades of shimmering pale greens, yellows and soft pink, pearls are once again on trend. This year, soft pastel pinks, yellows, creamy greys and greens were everywhere in Milan and are currently finding their way into contemporary interiors.
Pearls can be used to glow quietly for accent or to shimmer for flourish. For the soft glow of pearl in a statement piece, go for inlay furniture from bedside tables (£395), to mirrors (£195) and chests of drawers (£1,295) by Graham and Green. The mother-of-pearl is intricately inlaid into a wooden frame, a reference to traditional Indian techniques (see historic examples at the V&A). Visit graham andgreen.co.uk (0845 130 6622).
For a more in-your-face pearl look, try Jallu Ebeniste's Gypse Art Deco-inspired cabinet, which looks like slabs of mother-of-pearl (£14,497), from Bespoke Global (bespokeglobal.com).
For just a hint of pearl opulence — but one that can't be missed — try a pearl door handle. Chloe Alberry's rectangular handles (£130 a pair) are at chloealberry.com and 84 Portobello Road, W11 (020 7727 0707); or for good value, a round handle with a pearl flower design, by Graham and Green (£4.50 each; as above).
To make a splash try inserts of sparkling mother-of-pearl inlay tiles by De Ferranti. They come in a range of designs, starting with tiny tesserae — mosaic-like cubes made from pearls and exotic shells. Prices vary depending on size and materials but range from £130 to £2,400 a square metre. Visit deferranti.com or 583 King's Road, SW6 (020 7384 4424).
Several designers use the pearl's shape. See Christopher Guy's black pearls mirror in mahogany finished in black lacquer (£3,194; christopherguy.com) or Cargo's necklace cushion — a string of white pearls on a black background, on sale at £7.50 each. Visit cargohomeshop.com (08448 483300).
The pearl also finds its way into the bathroom, but in pearlised glass as in CP Hart's new Glass Design Bowl Collection of handblown basins (from £720; cphart.co.uk; 0845 6001950).
For a pearly light, go for Verner Panton's Fun series made by Verpan. Designed in 1964, the lights are made of mother-of-pearl discs that give a soft reflective light (aram.co.uk; 110 Drury Lane, WC2; 020 7557 7557).