Tag Archives: Japan

Pearls and Paintings: Treasures of Asia and the Sea

My friend and I both love pearls. Not the perfectly round type that are cultured in Japan but the freshwater pearls that many are now, it is true, ‘manufactured’ in factory rivers or beds of water, and sea pearls that come from exotic locations and are fished from the sea. The ‘grotesque’ or baroque pearls that are large and weird shapes are wonderful, and the many colours that you can get – some natural and related to the colour of the nacre of the mollusc, and some ‘encouraged’ as the pearls grow (not dyed but inserted as part of the ‘skin’ colouring) – are fascinating. When the colours are natural it is often difficult to see why they are named pink or black or green as the colours are not clear but the freshwater pearls that now come out of China and Thailand are wonderfully coloured.

I started my pearl collection in China town in San Francisco and have followed up buying them wherever I find them – Thailand, India and  Spain (yes a Chinese emporium in Madrid had a wonderfully double length rope of mis-shapen or grotesque freshwater pearls that I bought for 8 Euros which would most likely have cost me double or treble that in the UK but not thought much of in China as they are not nicely round)…and of course markets everywhere… I even have some lovely coloured Colombian pearl earrings given to me as a present as they were discovered in the South American waters in the late 15th/early 16th centuries.

Some pearls – usually those which are a more regular shape – are made from pressed pearl powder – you can tell as there is a slight rim round them if you look carefully. These are the cheapest form of pearls of course.

I will tell you a little about the history of pearls now as we recently went to a wonderful exhibition in the V&A which held the most incredible collection of pearls you have ever seen.  some there in physical form and some in paintings as many of the most famous pearl necklaces or crowns or sets had been broken up and re-made. Indeed there was one such set which had been specifically designed so that you could take it apart and wear it up to 50 odd different ways! [http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/exhibition-pearls/about-the-exhibition/]

Many were beyond price and had been lent to the museum by other museums. Let me tell of some I particularly remember:

The oldest pearl jewellery recovered: a Roman earring;

Charles the First of England’s pearl earring that he wore as he was beheaded;

The betrothal necklace – probably from Darnley – of Mary Queen of Scots; (minute – she must have been tiny);

Queen Elizabeth II’s ball gown;

A Chinese gown;

An Indian Maharajah’s clothing;

And set after set in safes that had enormously thick walls and great locks as the pearls within them were so precious….!

The Qatar collections that had been loaned to this exhibition were outstanding too as Qatar was originally one of the nations that most exploited pearls by diving for them in the oyster beds off the coast starting in the first millennium BCE at least. We saw a very informative short film about how this was done and also some exhibits that explained how the different types of pearls were formed and thus how you often got a long thin pearl, as well as round ones.

The V&A say: “natural saltwater pearls are formed by the intrusion of a parasite such as a worm or piece of sponge into the shell’s mantle, the organ which produces nacre (mother-of-pearl). The parasite displaces cells to form a cyst, over which the nacre grows.

In principle any mollusc with a shell can create a pearl, from the giant clam to the land snail. The variety of colours and shapes of pearls is unimaginable, ranging from the exotic pink conch pearl, the brown and black pearl, the blue-green abalone pearl and the Melo pearl with its orange hues.

All these natural pearls were in great demand by Royalty and the grand nobility and those with pots of money up until the Japanese found a way to make round pearls through an ‘unnatural’ method. This method is still protected by patent.


Necklace from the Carnevale Collection, made by Yoko, London, 2013, 18 carat white gold, diamonds, natural colour pink and orange freshwater pearls, golden Indonesian South Sea and white Australian South Sea pearls, grey and blue Tahitian pearls. © Yoko London

South Sea pearls

Cultured pearls from the South Seas are found in countless colours. Their iridescence and hue are dependent on the type of molluscs they are grown in and where they are farmed. So their colour is natural according to the shell of the animal – and the exhibition had many such shells on display.

The queen of all oysters, the Pinctada maxima, produces the finest South Sea pearls. These come from established farms in Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and along the northern coast of Australia. The common Pinctada maxima produces white pearls, the silver-lipped variety results in pale metallic-grey tints and the gold-lipped specimen creates gems with an intense golden hue.

The Pinctada margaritifera, the black-lipped oyster from the Pacific atolls, produces the famous Tahitian pearls. These are not all black. Some are white, and the black ones take on spectacular green, blue, even aubergine, tones reminiscent of the colours of peacock feathers. (V&A website).

Interestingly, it was the Art Nouveau period and the Arts and Crafts who really were into the unusual shaped pearls incorporating them into long ropes or forming into fantastic shapes, as I am a real fan of these eras and have a pearl ring which my husband gave me for our Pearl Anniversary which dates from the 1890s.

After the implantation procedure freshwater mollusks are released to grow for approximately two to six years. Using this method, mollusks can be implanted many times, producing up to 24-32 pearls each!
The cultivation of freshwater pearls started at approximately the same time salt-water pearl cultivation began, in the early 1900s. Initially Japan was the leader in the freshwater market. Most pearls were created in Lake Biwa, a large lake near Kyoto. For this reason freshwater pearls used to be called ‘Biwa pearls.’ Lake Biwa reached the height of its production in the 1970s, when it produced several tons of freshwater pearls in one year.
Sadly due to pollution most of the freshwater lakes in Japan can no longer sustain the lives of the freshwater mollusks. Instead production has moved to the lakes of China in the area of Shanghai. The Chinese now lead the freshwater pearl industry.

Freshwater pearls occur in a variety of colors, most of which are created naturally by controlling the diet of the ‘mother’ mollusk! White, cream, and rose overtones are seen the most. Other colors can be created using various treatment processes such as irradiation. [http://www.americanpearl.com/fr2.html]

I have a wonderful collection now of pearls and nacre pieces in necklaces and earrings in many colours and shapes, and my friend has too but not quite as many it’s true…I don’t hoard and don’t obsessively collect but pearls – unusually shaped ones – are hard to resist.


To come – Chinese Paintings – also a V&A exhibition!

Cold and Yet More Cold and Japanese Magazines

Well the weather isn’t getting any better. Yet more snow this week and the temperatures barely above freezing but with an icy wind. And they say it may not get much better for a month!

This was rather disappointing to our visitor last weekend as he had come to see an English Garden and to report on it for his magazine – Mr Partner  (http://www.mrpartner.co.jp) – a lifestyle magazine which features English life quite often. They had decided that for the May issue they would feature English gardens.. ho ho. We had so little so show them. However we did our best and made a quick visit to find what was in flower at the store and plant up some new pretty blue pots on the patio and some lovely red flowers too.

So along came one of the Editors – lovely man who had some grasp of English and a very handy tape recorder who spent 2 hours with us! He photographed outside and inside – he was interested to see I had begonia corms on a windowsill warming through and beginning to sprout. He said that would not happen in Japan as they do not have windowsills … or at least ones wide enough. He also said that even where Japanese people had gardens, even if small, they used them mainly for storage and did not grow anything.

I had to prepare an English tea and cakes for him, as we provide that for our visitors. So out came the best glass cake stands and I made a lovely beetroot and pineapple cake with a cream filing and topping taken from a Delia Smith idea (the topping not the cake recipe).

He took photos of me pretending to plant something outside in my padded coat and then of both my husband and myself indoors. He asked and photographed the water system we have as that was one thing that had attracted his attention on our website (http://www.ngs.org.uk/gardens/gardenfinder/garden.aspx?search=type:advanced-pc:NW2+4DX-d:1-dr:6&id=22805). We have harvested as much of our rainwater as we possibly can both front and back. And at the back it is piped into a huge tank hidden under a bed of miniature and low growing plants. It is then piped down the garden to 2 taps for easy watering at the back of the garden. We were the only London garden he was visiting so can’t wait for the mag to come out to see what he has put in.

We do say on our website that we are to visitors  by appointment from March but this year of course so little was actually in flower. Many of our daffs are still thinking… usually of course the spring meadow has come right up and is beginning to fill out with flowers for the bees from symphitum and so on, but there is almost no sign of them so far… (We open for charity and only charge a small fee to cover costs for tea and cake and give our receipts to charity)

Still he seemed interested in what I had to say and went away with lots and lots of digital photos of the garden as we built it and how it has transformed since our first plant Dec 2007 – so we are now coming into our 5th summer. And we now have over 40 clematis! We went and got 3 new ones this afternoon from someone who has moved and there are several from my birthday present too waiting for planting including one for a hanging basket – new way of breeding them. I’m so looking forward to planting them and seeing them grow!

This is 20111

This is 20111

an overview DSCN1339 DSCN1317 DSCN1331 DSCN1286 DSCN1297

The garden 2012

The garden 2012

Overgrown and ivy everywhere

Overgrown and ivy everywhere

The original state of the back garden

The original state of the back garden

IMGP0283 tree58a4

The garden we started with in 2007

The garden we started with in 2007 halfway through its tranformation