Published: 19.03.2021
Saskia van Es
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Hymmen & Hiroi, photo from the ‘Parel Silhouet’ project in collaboration with ‘acoya’, 2019.
. Photo courtesy of Anneke Hymmen and Kumi Hiroi..
Hymmen & Hiroi, photo from the ‘Parel Silhouet’ project in collaboration with ‘acoya’, 2019.
Photo courtesy of Anneke Hymmen and Kumi Hiroi.

© By the author. Read Copyright.

For ages, the ocean was a mysterious and dangerous place. Only a few dared to take from its treasures, such as the Japanese Ama women who were famous for collecting pearls. Pearl divers had to open and kill thousands of molluscs until a single adequate pearl was found.

Klimt02's Material Stories series attempts to examine various perspectives on the use of materials. This is the fourth article of the series of the Materials Stories series, on Pearls. Stay tuned to explore gold, gems, and recycled materials.

At the end of the 19th Century, around the same time that ordinary mortals gathered courage for underwater exploration and underwater photography was invented, Japanese Kokichi Mikimoto managed to develop cultured pearls. More affordable pearls became available on the market in large quantities, from freshwater, Akoya, Tahitian or South Sea pearl farms. Even today the process – grafting techniques, nucleated, non-nucleated, triggering nacre secretion - is constantly modified to obtain that perfectly spherical pearl. (1)

Ama pearl divers, here next to Kokichi Mikimoto, inventor of cultured pearls, were still in great demand for the industry in the early years, Japan, 1921.
Photo: Spaarnestad Photo / Wikimedia Commons.

Was pearl farming good or bad news? Some say that molluscs purify the water since they continuously filter it for algae. The opposite is also true: it is in the interest of the farmer that the water in the oyster bays is of good quality. But pearl farms can harm coral reefs and drive out naturally existing molluscs. Tiffany & Co invested in Sustainable Pearls, an organization that encourages methods that are fair in terms of ecology and labor conditions (2). How about animal welfare, there are far fewer oysters discarded, aren't there? Activists claim a pearl oyster experiences stress when the necessary irritants are surgically inserted, or when the cages are moved to find waters with the right temperature. After being harvested, some types of animals can be ‘reused’ a second time. Whether that is a good thing or not. (3)
Bérénice Noël, Vahiné - black and white, Earrings. Freshwater pearls, steel (fish hooks), gold, 2020.
Image courtesy of Galerie Elsa Vanier, Paris.

Status or sea
In contemporary jewellery, pearls often either mock a status-related view of the world, or stand for the connection of us tiny humans with a vast ocean, think: David Attenborough's Blue Planet. That pristine ocean is, of course, also a source of fish for consumption, a place to extract minerals with new seabed mining technologies, to dump waste, and a hub of shipping traffic, wind farms, gas pipelines, and communication cables. At the event ‘Parcours Bijoux’ in Paris, in the fall of 2020, at least two jewellery exhibitions used these mixed feelings as a theme: ‘Treasures from the Sea’ and ‘Ocean 2050’ . In the latter expo, Bérénice Noël, born on the island of La Réunion, told the nautical tale of sirens fatally attracting men with their treasures. “Hidden beneath these jewels, sharp-clawed hooks await new prey: […] pearly bone-like structures are long-since trapped.(4) It feels like the sea taking its revenge.

Terhi Tolvanen, Flores Nubius, Necklace. Pearwood, cherry wood, pearls, silver, 2018.
Image: courtesy of Ornamentum Gallery.

Shaping the material
Considered to be prissy or a symbol for the sea, neither is what interests Terhi Tolvanen. The Finnish, France-based artist just uses pearls as a material, but completely altered to her liking: she facets and engraves them. For her, this is not any different from changing and manipulating stones or wood, which are also wonders of nature. “I need to dim down the shine. Pearls are too perfect and too alike, and, repeating that same intensity would make the result boring. The ‘drawing’ needs to be lively.” A certain curiosity also plays a role, especially with naturally black or dyed pearls: “From the outside, it can seem rather black and when cut, it sometimes turns into shades of dark lilac. Coming home after a gem fair, I always ‘look inside’ the pearls as soon as possible.” (5)

Shinji Nakaba, Earth Worm. Ring/Pendant. Carved pearl, stainless steel, from "How Dare Pearl" series, 2020.
Image courtesy of the artist.

Shinji Nakaba from Japan is another artist who became well known for working his pearls. His skulls are carved from a single pearl. Recently he has taken this approach, of pearls as a material to be shaped, one step further. He pierces cut pearls and adhesive on a steel wire and after curing, he carves the block into, for example, an earthworm. His work has been called reckless and unsuitable, but Nakaba replies with a story of an heir to a noble pearl family, who wanted to become a YouTuber: “It's a metaphor for the importance of boldly trying what you want to do in your life.” (6) An earthworm! It could not be further removed from the sea.
Hiroki Masuzaki, Mother and Child, Necklace. Shell (mother of pearl), Keshi pearl, 18k yellow gold chain, 2020.
Image courtesy of the artist.
The birthplace of pearls
Back to the sea. It is the main inspiration for Japanese Chitose Ohchi, curator of international art projects with her pearl brand ‘acoya’ (with c instead of k, the c-shape indicating an imperfect circle). For the most recent exhibition, ‘Bones are Coral Made, Pearls are Eyes’, Japanese and Dutch jewellery designers were invited. (7) They had to have a fresh take on design but also a heart for nature. Says Ohchi: “All life is born from the sea, and those memories are reflected within a woman’s womb, with the characteristics of life and death, of Eros and Thanatos.” (8)  Could this be visible in one of the participants’, Hiroki Masuzaki, pendant? What was originally there, was removed from the mother of pearl. What remains is the form of a religious medallion with an accidentally formed Keshi pearl passing through the void. (9)

KasaneYô x Shinju Kobe, Fins by Morgane de Klerk, plastic, silk, Kobe pearls, tulle, rope, aluminum.
Dress by Q Hisashi Shibata, photographer Annie van Noortwijk, 2018. Image: courtesy of KasaneYô collective.
French-Dutch artist Morgane de Klerk, who previously created a costume inspired by the Ama divers with the jewellery collective KasaneYô (10), is also part of ‘Bones are Coral Made, Pearls are Eyes’. She used tetrapod forms in combination with baroque pearls. In Japan, anti-erosion tetrapods protect the coasts. The interplay between nature-made and man-made is an undercurrent in De Klerk’s work: “The limitations of nature, improving nature, going too far – these are all important ethical questions for makers nowadays. It is one of the reasons I don’t exclusively use sustainable or eco-friendly materials. We have to deal with the natural, the artificial, and the industrial in our surroundings.”
Morgane de Klerk, Tetrapearl Melody, Earrings. Baroque Acoya pearls, 925 silver, nylon, paint, 2020.
Photo: courtesy of the artist.
Chitose Ohchi reflects: “I talked about pearls and motherhood. At the same time, pearls are fragile, imperfect, and transient.” What she finds endearing, the pearl farmers see as a flaw. They only use a small ‘perfect’ percentage of the harvest. With her exhibition, she hopes to show that baroque or asymmetrical – non-dyed! – pearls are just as beautiful. In Ohchi’s words, I hear unconditional respect for everything the oyster has made. That seems only fair after all the trouble the animals have been through.

Hymmen & Hiroi, photo from the ‘Parel Silhouet’ project in collaboration with ‘acoya’, 2019.
Photo courtesy of Anneke Hymmen and Kumi Hiroi.
(1) New Freshwater Pearls Upcoming Revolution, Baltic Jewellery News (March 2020) No. 38, pp 22-24.
(2) Sustainable Jewellery: Principles and Processes for Creating an Ethical Brand, by Jose Luis Fettolini, Promopress 2018.
(3) People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Is there any reason I shouldn’t buy a pearl necklace? and Vegan Fashion. Does Removing the Pearl Kill the Oyster?
(4) Artist’s statement Bérénice Noël.
(5) Email correspondence with Terhi Tolvanen, February 2021.
(6) Email correspondence with Shinji Nakaba, March 2021.
(7) The exhibition took place in Japan in 2020 and will travel to the Netherlands in the fall of 2021; Denmark and Taiwan will follow as Covid-19 regulations permit. Curator: C& in collaboration with ‘acoya’ (Chitose Ohchi), participants: among others Annelies Planteijdt, Sayaka Yamamoto, Emilie Pallard & Niels Heymans, Gitte Nygaard, Imago, Hiroki Masuzaki, Jeannette Jansen, Katja Prins, Maki Okamoto, Morgane de Klerk, Q Hisashi Shibata, Atsuko Ito.
(8) Email correspondence with Chitose Ohchi, February 2021
(9) Email correspondence with Hiroki Masuzaki, March 2021; a keshi is a small coreless pearl produced as bycatch in pearl culture
(10) KaseneYô, collaborating with Kobe akoya cultured pearls company Shinju Kobe, consists of the four international jewellery designers Q Hisashi Shibata, Morgane de Klerk, Nina Sajet and Gitte Nygaard.

About the author

Saskia van Es​
(Amsterdam, 1972) is an art historian. She writes texts on contemporary jewellery, such as exhibition reviews. Her fascination: jewellery materials. She was a board member of the Françoise van den Bosch Foundation. More at