The Ambiguous Pearl by Kimberley Chandler



The Ambiguous Pearl by Kimberley Chandler


Maisie Broadhead presents us with a series of photographic portraits that depict seventeenth-century femininity: it is there, in the exposed neckline of the décolletage, in the stiff satin bodice, the Chinese silk damask trimmed with lace, and multiple folds of patterned fabric to set off pearly flesh. An elaborate string of pearls completes this charade. Yet, rather than decorate the body that wears them, the pearls besiege it; they refuse to submit to this show of decorum. Cut loose from the image surface, irrational and uncontained, the pearls materialise in overlong strings that spill over, and out of, the portrait’s frame. The pearl, like the female subject, is unquiet.


In her book on gemstones and jewellery, Marcia Pointon refers to seventeenth-century portraits of women in fine apparel. She notes an excess of “pearl-adorned translucent flesh” quite at odds with the moralising tone of critics, who warned against the ill effects of ornament, against the intoxication of trinkets. In this contradiction lies the discontent of the pearl. We look at it, at her, so iridescent and perfect. Pearl on pearly flesh. In it, in her, we see bright moons, thunder, “something rich and strange.” The pearls and the body that wears it become indistinguishable. This is the intention: like the pearl, the female subject can be traded, owned, and set aside.


Knowing that Maisie’s portraits are accurately staged copies, coaxed into replica frames, introduces to us the first tier of her mythmaking. She is conscious of the falsity of these historical documents, of their incidental nature and pictorial staging, and, with female portraiture in particular, their value as exchange objects. Her first move is to restage this show of femininity. The innocent pearl becomes a sign for all that is affected, synthetic, and loveless about this particular ritual. The bridal portrait is pure sign.


It was Roland Barthes who referred to the photograph as “a kind of speech.” Here, it is the pearl that speaks on behalf of these agitated women, for the pearl itself is troubled. It performs its role faithfully, flickering between precious commodity and innocent wretch, a sign of wealth and idleness, of beauty and decay. Strung up and conspicuously consumed as the embodiment of purity, the pearl conceals its troubled origin in a veneer of lustre.


It was believed that pearls were formed of droplets of rain or dew; that the tears of gods manifested in beads of lustre within the oyster’s shell. This myth of the pearl’s origin gives emotional nuance to Maisie’s portraits. But the true story is less than kind. At the heart of the pearl is a grit of sand. A small, abrasive particle; it is coarse and impure. The oyster, whose lustrous interior flesh appears so enticing, makes for a soft target. The grit knows this. With resolve, it infiltrates the oyster’s shell, clumsily tearing its way through the soft flesh, and embedding itself deep within its lining. With its tender body violated, the oyster reacts. Its instinct is to isolate the intruder using secretions of nacre, the rainbow-hued mother-of-pearl that is its armour. This is not the smother of love, but of self-defence. What option does the oyster have but to drown the grit in this peculiar lustre? Layer by layer, the grit is encased; it can take four years to smooth out its rough edges. And here we have it: a pearl. 


It is the false notion of innocence that condemns the pearl, for it is not spontaneously made, but rather coerced into being. Seen in this light, Maisie’s Pearls are no longer the clear-cut signifiers of virtue, or purity. They pronounce more than the solemnity of an unmarried woman. Here they chastise, and undermine. As if having surrendered to years of humiliation, these Pearls organise themselves into parodies of injustice, no longer lusting for attention but sympathy. The pearls do not form a necklace, but rather bondage ties, the strings of a marionette, and a hangman’s noose. With a lack of civility that doesn’t become them, the pearls slump off the necks of their wearers and slip into the present-time; the string of pearls forms a continuum between their world and ours. Defeated, the pearls wind up at our feet, at once cumbersome and neurotic. This is not the polite behaviour of gentility, but simply an embarrassment. 


Within the folds of pale satin and lace edgings, the downturned gaze and romance, is a heavy heart. No amount of pearls, strings of “immaculate perfection,” can mend it. The pearl, writes Pointon, “stands for what is both beautiful and also visceral and sinister.” This contradiction saturates the smallest details, reaching its apotheosis in the pearl’s opacity. It is not possible to see inside it. The pearl’s beautiful lustre belies its troubled centre; beneath the gloss is trauma.


But here the trauma is twofold. It is not the iridescence of natural pearls we witness in Pearls, but the folly of imitation. For these are glass beads painted in a mother-of-pearl lacquer. They are perfectly spherical, unlike their natural cousins. Dare to cut beneath the pearl-like veneer, and you will find a hollowed, emptied disgrace. All that pattern and pretence is nothing more than make-believe. In an instant, silk damask trimmed with lace becomes mere image. This show of female sexuality and promise becomes little more than smoke and mirrors. 


To truly test the authenticity of a pearl it can be dropped: a natural pearl will bounce far more rhythmically; it has its own momentum. An imitation pearl has no such charisma: it falls with a “thud”. Pearls parodies this truth-telling test. We witness a downpour of tear-like pearls, but devoid of sound it is impossible to tell how they fall. It is this ambiguity of the pearl that haunts Maisie’s portraits. Beautiful and sinister.


It is said that pearls appear lacklustre when their wearer is broken-hearted; too much suffering can be intuited in their dull glaze. Ball and Chain. Shackled. Hung. All the signs are there. Is this the romance of the pearl, or something else entirely?



Further Reading:


George Frederick Kunz and Charles Hugh Stevenson, The Book of the Pearl: The History, Art, Science, and Industry of the Queen of Gems (New York: Dover; London: Constable, 1993)


Marcia Pointon, Brilliant Effects: A Cultural History of Gem Stones and Jewellery (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009)


Primo Levi, ‘Pearl Oyster,’ in Collected Poems, trans. by Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann (London: Faber, 1988)



Kimberley Chandler is a London-based researcher, writer, and editor. She is the current recipient of an AHRC-funded PhD studentship at the University of Brighton, UK.

June 10