In the pre-oil days, pearls were the primary source of income for many countries within the Middle East. Times have changed, and Qatar is just one place where the economy is no longer based on pearling alone. However, pearls are still collected from the region’s oyster beds, and adventurous types can even dive for their own. Pearls also remain a great source of intrigue, for their natural beauty as well as the important role they have played in the region’s heritage.
A new exhibition starting later this month and running until April 30 at the Museum of Islamic Art will reveal more about pearls than you could possibly ever have wanted to know. There will be over 500 samples on display, including the Hope Pearl and the Pearl of Asia – both more than 5cm in diameter. The Hope Pearl, like the Hope Diamond, takes its name from its original owner, Philip (Henry) Hope. A freshwater, natural river pearl, it is recognisable by its distinctive pear shape. The Pearl of Asia has more of an egg-like shape and is believed to be one of the biggest natural pearls in the world, discovered in the Persian Gulf some time in the 16th or 17th century.
Other highlights will include the Al Fardan collection – the biggest stock of natural Gulf pearls in existence – the Melo pearl (rare pearls from the melo shell), and a tiara by Chaumet, Paris, dated 1897, featuring pearls, silver and diamonds. Already there is a great sense of history within the exhibition, and the organisers expect this to complement the education side of things. ‘Pearls are never formed around a grain of sand,’ a spokesperson for the Museum of Islamic Art told us, dispelling one of the common beliefs surrounding pearls. ‘Also, all shells can form pearls, including the land snail French delicacy. Pearls have been found all over the world, even as far as the polar circle, and the biggest ever weighs in at around 6kg.’
The exhibition is set present a multitude of scientific fact, some of which the organisers have stated may even contradict what some experts have reported on before – including theories on how pearls are actually formed. But Qatar itself is ideally placed to both host such an exhibition, and also to be an authority on pearls and the pearling industry, considering that the Qatar Museums Authority already treasures one of the most impressive collections of rare pearls anywhere in the world, and because of the pearl divers who operated out of Doha until the ’50s. In fact, there will be a section within the exhibition that details the lives of these men, the hardships they faced out at sea and also being away from their families for so long, the songs they sang to keep their spirits high, and the tools they used as part of their livelihood. Pearls found in this region often have a pinkish hue, and this was believed to have been caused by the blood spilt in the name of finding them.
Pieces for the exhibition have been donated from around the world, including the British Museum and the Albion Art collection in Tokyo. Together they will be an important reminder of the significance of the pearl to the region, and how they have shaped an industry for generations.
Pearl Exhibition, Museum of Islamic Art (422 4444). From January 30-April 30.