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Pearl Power: Good things do come in small packages. The beauty of the world’s most dazzling natural gem shines at the ROM.

If diamonds are forever, pearls are the epitome of classic and understated elegance. Long a favourite of iconic women throughout history, from Catherine the Great and Queen Victoria to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Audrey Hepburn, pearls are a cherished symbol of purity and affluence. Pearls: Pearls: A Natural History, continuing this month at the Royal Ontario Museum, presents a comprehensive yet glamorous exploration of the “Queen of Gems.”

Seven visually dazzling sections trace the history of pearls, beginning with the Indian Ocean as the central hub of the pearl market more than 4,000 years ago, Christopher Columbus’ discovery of vast quantities of pearls off the Venezuelan and Panama coasts during the 16th century to the emergence of Japan in the 1920s as a leading producer of cultured pearls. Other sections explore pearl diving expeditions, tools and techniques used through the centuries for harvesting these gems, the natural evolution and elements of pearls as well as different types and varieties, including marine and freshwater.The exhibit also addresses the myths surrounding pearls—frozen tears of the gods according to the ancient Romans; lightning strikes at the sea thought the Greeks, and solidified dewdrops captured by clams to early scholars. Dispelling folklore, a natural and scientific study delves into how pearls are formed and what properties give them their size, shape, colour and lustre. A pearl magnified up to 50,000 times its actual size reveals its layered structure while an evolutionary tree depicts the relationship between various pearl-producing organisms. Fifty-million-year-old lustrous fossil pearls and a striking cross section of coloured pearls round out the biological study.On view are stunning examples of the many decorative uses of pearls in art, fashion, jewellery, textiles and religious icons. An Akoya pearl necklace given to Marilyn Monroe from Joe DiMaggio on their 1954 honeymoon in Japan, a prototype of the necklace worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a Cartier olive-leaf tiara that once belonged to Princess Marie Bonaparte, a Nepalese turban crown and a double row pearl necklace featuring black Tahitian pearls are among some of the notable items. Two standout pieces are a gem-encrusted Russian Orthodox priest’s robe from the 1600’s—some robes contained as many as 150,000 natural pearls collected from the freshwater pearl mussels of northern Russia, and a festoon necklace designed by Jacques Cartier in 1911, featuring pearls he personally selected from markets near the Persian Gulf.This multi-faceted exhibit features more than 500 remarkable items—including nearly half a million individual pearls—drawn from major museums and private collections from around the world. The ROM is the sole Canadian venue for this exhibit, which originated at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and will also make stops in London and Tokyo.—Linda Luong

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