You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘pearls’ tag.

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The Kingdom of Bavaria existed from 1806 to 1918.  Although the region had longstanding cultural, religious, and political differences from the rest of Germany, its existence as an independent kingdom was a direct result of Napoleon’s great wars of conquest.  The French emperor redesignated the former duchy as a sovereign nation (under the Emperor’s control of course) and suddenly Duke Maximilian Joseph (a Francophile who had even served in the French army) became King Maximilian I.  Maximilian had a majestic royal regalia created to go with his new throne, but he never wore his crown in public or even arranged a coronation series (he was known as a somewhat avuncular monarch with some of the eccentricities which marked his descendants).  Maximilan’s first wife died before Napolen made him a king, however his second (Protestant!) wife Caroline of Baden became Queen Consort.  This crown was made for Caroline (Karoline?) in 1806.  It is one of my favorite of the Napoleonic era crowns both for its classical 8 arched shape (which always reminds me of a regal octopus sitting on someone’s head) and for its huge magnificent natural pearls.  The crown of the Queen of Bavaria survived the dissolution of Bavaria as a kingdo (at the end of World War I) and today it is kept in the Bavarian treasury in Munich.   For a landlocked nation, it is one of the most ocean-themed crowns out there, and if it just had some shells and flounders and maybe some corals and aquamarines it would be perfect for Amphitrite.

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It has been too long since we had a post about mollusks.  Am I running out of material about these exquisite invertebrates?  To make up for the absence here is a short sweet visual post.  This is the Empress Crown of Iran.  It was manufactured in 1967 by the French jewelers, Van Cleef & Arpels (who had to send a team to Iran to construct the piece).  The crown is made of jewels from the Iranian treasury (which was apparently full of exquisite Baroque pearls).  To my eye it may be the loveliest extant crown: apparently I am a Van Cleef & Arpels fan—an enthusiasm which has found little to no outlet in my life (Seriously, I thought that was the bad guy in Clint Eastwood moves).  The shapes and colors are exquisitely suited to each other in a way which echoes the best of ancient Persian art (more about Persian art shortly).  In a very real way, however, the crown does not echo ancient Persian thought. Consorts of the Iranian monarch were uncrowned throughout history—up until 1967.  The Shah wanted to make his marriage a part of the so-called “White Revolution”—a series of reforms to break the hold that reactionary clerics and nobles held on society.  One of the main aims of the White Revolution was to enfranchise women—and so the Shah wanted a bride who was more equal than were the wives of Qajar rulers.  Alas, the unexpected and unintended consequences of the White Revolution wound up casting long shadows over Iran.  Historians broadly assert that it upset the wealthy elites without greatly benefiting the poor or providing additional political freedoms and thus paved the way for the mullah’s revolution (as an aside, maybe we are lucky in America that Bernie Sander’s revolution crashed and berned, er, burned). Anyway whatever the case is about agrarian and business reforms, the Shah’s ideas at least led to the creation of this amazing crown for Farah Pahlavi, the first (and last) empress of Iran.

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This is the Cameo Tiara, a delicate and lovely miniature crown of pearls and feminine cameos which is owned by…King Carl Gustaf of Sweden! However the Swedish king doesn’t wear it, but rather lends it out to women in his family when they are being married. The cameos were carved separately and gathered into a crown in the first decade of the nineteenth century when cameos were all the rage. The crown was a gift from Napoleon to Josephine (or at least it is assumed that that is how she obtained it). Since the fall of the First French Empire, the little crown passed through surprisingly few hands. Orders of Splendor, a blog dedicated to such things describes its history succinctly:

Josephine left it to her daughter Princess Eugénie, who left it to her nephew Prince Eugén. Eugen loaned it to his niece by marriage, Crown Princess Margaret, and eventually gave it to Princess Sibylla of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha when she married Prince Gustaf Adolf in 1932. Sibylla lent it to her sister-in-law, the future Queen Ingrid of Denmark, for a costume ball and ultimately left it to her son, King Carl Gustaf.

The pretty crown seems ideally suited to weddings because of the central cameo—but that cameo is itself the subject of minor controversy. To me it appears to be Venus teasing her son Cupid by holding some cherished object just out of his reach (archery equipment maybe…or a girdle or even a crown). Others. However, see it as a Psyche and Cupid—although frankly I enjoy Psyche and Cupid art when the two are more evenly matched in age (and when Psyche is not unwisely tormenting her spouse). Maybe the question adds charm and interest to the piece.

CameoTiaraWearersWhatever the case it is a beautiful little crown. I just wish we could see what is on the other four cameos on the back! The next time a Swedish princess invites me to her wedding I will be sure to ask (in a polite and cautious manner of course, the last thing I need is to be stabbed by some rich beefy Scandinavian nobleman).

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The Coronet of Margaret of York

The Coronet of Margaret of York

Two years ago, Ferrebeekeeper featured the crown of the renowned king Henry VIII of England. To my eyes it has been the prettiest crown so far featured here…but it’s fake, of course. All of the real historical medieval crowns from English history were melted down and sold in the aftermath of the English Civil War (which ended in 1651) when Oliver Cromwell and the protectorate took over the United Kingdom and ruled with a puritanical iron fist. Well, technically all of the actual medieval crowns from English history were destroyed…except for two. Above is the finer of the two, the coronet of Margaret of York, who, though never a queen, became duchess of Burgundy, one of the richest and most important ducal territories in all of Europe. This crown survived England’s tumultuous history by the simple expedient of not being in England (which sort of describes Margaret of York as well).

Anonymous portrait of Margaret of York, ca. 1468, Louvre

Anonymous portrait of Margaret of York, ca. 1468, Louvre

Margaret was born the daughter of England’s most powerful lord, Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, who served as lord protector of England during the madness of Henry VI (the pious but weak king who briefly ruled both France and England). Two of Margaret’s brothers were kings of England– Edward IV and Richard III (famous forever as a Shakespeare villain, whose remains were rediscovered 3 years ago under a parking lot in England). Margaret’s personal history of conniving nobles, kings, wars, alliances, betrothals, marriages, murders, horsing accidents, scurrilous sexual rumors, and complex treaties would make George. R. R. Martin pull out his beard in frustration, although Wikipedia amazingly manages to summarize it all in approximately 3 incomprehensible pages. When Margaret was married to Charles the Bold (whose untimely death precipitated two centuries of major wars) she wore this coronet. Burgundy was known for its wealth and extravagance. During her wedding the city was decorated with ornamental pelicans which spewed wine on the crowds!

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Margaret’s coronet is tiny—a mere 12 centimeters (five inches) in diameter and height, but it is richly “ornamented with multi-coloured enamel, pearls, gems set in white roses, a diamond cross, the coats of arms of England and Burgundy, and letters forming the name: margarit(a) de (y)o(r)k. Margaret of York.” The reason the beautiful object has survived history in such good shape is that Margaret visited the Imperial city of Aachen in the summer of 1474 and donated her coronet to the statue of Mary in the great cathedral there. The little crown has remained in the cathedral’s treasury for the ensuing 541 years. It should be noted that the meticulous Germans have also kept the original leather case (which makes the crown more valuable for serious collectors?).

A polished shell of Pāua Abalone (Haliotis iris)

A polished shell of Pāua Abalone (Haliotis iris)

The blackfoot paua (Haliotis iris) is a species of abalone found in the cool coastal waters around New Zealand (and nearby islands such as Stewart Island and the Chatham Islands).  Coincidentally, the word “Haliotis” derives from Ancient Greek and means sea ear—because abalones superficially resemble human ears.  Abalones are large marine gastropods (sea snails) which have long been prized by humans for having delicious meat and gorgeous shells.  The blackfoot paua is no exception—not only is it fished for its flesh, but the Māori people, who are indigenous to New Zealand, esteem it as a treasure to be used in culturally significant works of art. To quote thefeaturedcreature.com, “Typically, the blackfoot abalone is used in Māori carvings to represent eyes; these eyes are associated with the stars or whetū, the symbolic eyes of ancestors that gaze down from the night sky.”

Iwi Le Comte Maori Carving with mount (2011, Totara wood and Paua shell)

Iwi Le Comte Maori Carving with mount (2011, Totara wood and Paua shell)

The shells of blackfoot paua are not naturally iridescent: craft workers expend a great deal of energy grinding away the inconspicuous neutral colored exterior so that the brilliant whirls and swirling colors of the nacre are revealed.  In addition to its lovely shell and tasty flesh the blackfoot paua can also produce scintillating blue-green pearls which are known as blue eyris pearls.

Blue Eyris Pearls next to a polished Pāua abalone shell

Blue Eyris Pearls next to a polished Pāua abalone shell

Like the giant triton, the blackfoot paua is suffering for its beauty.  New Zealand has many sensible regulations to prohibit overfishing the paua: divers must free dive for the mollusks, and fisherfolk can only collect a limited number of specimens of a certain size. Unfortunately even a first-world nation only has so many resources to devote to conservation, and marine experts expect that the blackfoot paua is suffering from overharvest.  Hopefully humankind can find a way to balance the demands of traditional carving with the needs of conservation:  Māori carving is very beautiful, but so too are the living shellfish…

Maori wood carving of Tawhiri, god of storms (at the Arataki Visitor Centre, Auckland, New Zealand)

Maori wood carving of Tawhiri, god of storms (at the Arataki Visitor Centre, Auckland, New Zealand)

Melo Pearl

Melo Pearl

The world’s rarest and most precious pearls do not come from oysters, but instead from very large sea snails of the species Melo melo.  Melo melo snails lives in the tropical waters of southeast Asia and range from Burma down around Malysia and up into the Philippines.  The snails are huge marine gastropods which live by hunting other smaller snails along the shallow underwater coasts of the warm Southeast Asia seas.

Melo melo snail (Melo melo)

Melo melo snail (Melo melo)

Melo melo is a very lovely snail with a smooth oval shell of orange and cream and with zebra stripes on its soft body.  The shell lacks an operculum (the little lid which some snails use to shut their shells) and has a round apex as opposed to the more normal spiral spike. This gives the Melo melo snail’s shell a very aerodynamic lozenge-like appearance (although living specimens look more like alien battlecraft thanks to the large striped feet and funnels).  The animals grow to be from 15 to 35 centimeters in length (6 inches to a foot) although larger specimens have been reported.  The shell is known locally as the bailer shell because fishermen use the shells to bail out their canoes and small boats.

Melo melo at Birmingham's National Sea Life Centre (with keeper)

Melo melo at Birmingham’s National Sea Life Centre (with keeper)

Melo pearls form only rarely on the snails and are due to irritating circumstances unknown to science.  No cultivation mechanism exists (which explains the astronomically high prices).  A single large melo pearl can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars or more in Asia.  The pearls are usually egg-shaped or oval (although perfectly round specimens are known) and they can measure up to 20-30mm in diameter.  Not nacreous (like pearls from oysters & abalones), these valuable objects have a porcelain-like transparent shine.  Melo pearls are brown, cream, flesh, and orange (with the brighter orange colors being most valuable).

Melo pearls with Melo melo shell

Melo pearls with Melo melo shell

Apart from the fact that they come from a large orange predatory sea snail, what I like most about melo pearls is the extent to which they evoke the celestial.  It is hard not to look at the shining ovals and orbs without thinking of the sun, Mars, Makemake, and Haumea.  Rich jewelry aficionados of East Asia, India, and the Gulf states must agree with me.  It is difficult to conceive of paying the price of a nice house for a calcium carbon sphere from an irritated/diseased snail, unless such pearl spoke of unearthly beauty and transcendent longing.

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Mikimoto Pearl Crown

In the classical Roman world, crowns did not represent monarchy in the same way they later came to during the Middle Ages.  Instead crown and wreathes were granted as an award to individuals who had distinguished themselves–much like a trophy or a medal.  Strangely, this ancient tradition continues today in the world of beauty pageants.  Contests like the Miss America contest, the Miss Universe pageant, and numerous other beauty pageants invariably present a crown to the victor (although the Roman custom has been sadly watered down and winners don’t keep their crown but give it to their successor).

Ex-General Alfred Gruenther presents the pageant crown to Jean Marie Lee of Alaska, the 1957 U.S. Cherry Blossom Queen.

The crowns for the Miss America, Miss USA, and Miss World pageant are gaudy affairs made of crystal and synthetic gemstones, however Mikimoto the world’s great manufacturer of cultured pearls also makes pageant crowns and promotional crowns out of their peerless cultured pearls, and some of these headdresses are strangely lovely and striking.

Pearls are formed when the internal mantle tissues of certain shelled mollusks are injured by a predator attack, a parasite incursion, or some other event. In response, the mollusk secretes nacre into the hollow space formed around the injury. The nacre is composed of calcium carbonate and a fibrous protein known as conchiolin.  In the past pearls were very expensive and rare (so much so that the real crown of the Netherlands is made with fake pearls manufactured of fishskin and paste).  However in the beginning of the twentieth century Japanese entrepreneurs mastered a technique for culturing perfect pearls.  The Mikimoto company has been a pearl culturing company and a fine jeweler ever since.

The Cherry Blossom Festival Crown

For the last century, Mikimoto has created many beautiful crowns in order to show off its wares. In 1957, Mikimoto created the elaborate Cherry Blossom crown for the U.S. Cherry Blossom Queen of the National Cherry Blossom Festival held in Washington DC, which has celebrated Japanese-American friendship since 1912 (except for a few periods, when the festival was canceled for sundry reasons). Mikimoto also made two demonstration crowns which do not have any purpose other than to show off their art.   The crown pictured at the top of this post was crafted by Mikimoto in 1978 to commemorate the 85th anniversary of the discovery of their method of culturing pearls.  Another spectacular demonstration crown was made by Mikimo in 1979 based on Byzantine models and designs.

Mikimoto Pearl Crown II

In 2002 Mikimoto constructed the so-called “Phoenix crown” for the Miss Universe pageant out of 500 diamonds and 120 large South Sea and Akoya pearls.  The crown was presented to pageant winners between 2002 and 2007 when it was sold to a private owner.  Although I object to Miss Universe for false advertising (only denizens of Earth are represented), the large pearls of the pageant crown are certainly very striking.

The Phoenix Tiara used to crown Miss Universe between 2002 and 2007

Here the crown is worn by Riyo Mori, the 2007 Miss Universe pageant winner

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