Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Faux Pearls

Johannes Vermeer
"Girl with a pearl earring" (1665-6)
Natural pearls, found inside various seashells, have been prized and worn as jewelry since antiquity. The pearl is formed as a secretion of the mollusk; it is the animal's response to an irritant, perhaps a sharp grain of sand, which has become lodged in its tissue. The secretion, called "nacre" is the same material from which the mollusk builds and enlarges its shell. Natural pearls are rare; large, well formed ones are even more so. A famous legend claims that Cleopatra used pearls to win a bet with Marc Antony: that she could spend ten million sesterces on a single meal. She literally drank pearls that had been ground up and dissolved in wine. Because of the difficulty in obtaining pearls, and their high demand among the wealthy, it is not surprising that like artificial gems, artificial pearls have enjoyed a brisk trade throughout history.

In Antonio Neri's era, the early seventeenth century, a number of recipes used glue, egg whites or other organic materials to simulate pearls. These had the obvious disadvantage of being susceptible to degradation by moisture and physical handling. Another alternative was to simulate pearls with glass, and on this count, Neri does not disappoint. Recipe number sixty in his 1612 book L'Arte Vetraria gives his prescription for artificial pearls. Here it is in its entirety:

In fused and clarified cristallo, add three or four portions of tartar from wine dregs. You must thoroughly calcine this tartar to a white color. Stir it thoroughly into the glass, and continue to add more tartar, also well calcined until it is white. Add four to six more portions, always stirring the glass thoroughly, continuing thus until the cristallo takes on a pearl color. In this recipe, I cannot give exact rules, because it is a matter of experience, which is gained through experimentation. Once obtained, you must work the color quickly, because it will dissipate. I have practiced and experimented with this method many times.

"Cristallo" is the exceptionally clear glass the Venetians developed, perfected and were renowned for throughout Europe. "Tartar" is a crystalline growth that forms on the inside of wine casks, what we now know as "cream of tartar." Occasionally, one might spot crystals at the bottom of bottles of wine. They are a rich source of potassium. Neri, the Venetians and others had used tartar as a glass flux over a period of centuries. Here, however, he is not using it as a flux, but as a colorant to give the glass the pearl's shimmering appearance. His claim to making many batches of this glass implies large numbers of artificial pearls were in circulation. Our glassmaker presents a second recipe, which does not make any mention of pearls, but oddly may have much more to do with the evolution of reproducing these treasures of the sea. Recipe number 114 is entitled "The Way to Tint Glass Balls, and Others Vessels of Clear Glass, From the Inside, In All Kinds of Colors, So They Will Imitate Natural Stones." Here, Neri spreads fish-glue on the inside surface of a blown globe of clear glass, followed by various pigments.

Even in his time, artificial pearls found their way into royal courts and onto the canvasses of master painters. The fashion-setting monarchs of France and Britain Catherine de' Medici and Elizabeth I were famous for their extravagant love of pearls. Elizabeth famously purchased faux pearls from Venetian glassmakers to adorn her garments. She commissioned many portraits donning her pearl studded creations. Referring to the famous painting by Johannes Vermeer, Lloyd Schwartz recently observed, "[T]he scholarship on Girl with a Pearl Earring reveals that the pearl isn't really a pearl […] the famous pearl is probably just glass painted to look like a pearl."* It is interesting to note that the painting was executed in 1665-6, within five years after three reprints of Neri’s book, two in Italian one in English, and only a couple of years before a Latin edition printed in Vermeer's own country.

Around 1680, a Parisian maker of rosary beads invented a type of artificial pearl consisting of a small hollow glass bead, painted on the inside with the iridescent discharge of fish scales mixed with glue. He then filled the beads with wax. Jacquin had apparently rediscovered the shimmering pearly residue of a specific fish. His innovation fueled a new industry; he called the precious pigment "essence d'orient." But the material had already been employed in eastern France in 1656 and according to other reports as early as the reign of Henry IV of France (1572–1610), which closely coincides with Antonio Neri's own lifetime. By 1716, scientists were investigating essence d'orient under a microscope. Rene Antoine Ferchault de Reaumur reported tiny, perfectly formed rectangular plates that reflect the light to cause the shimmering.**

Perhaps more interesting than who discovered what, is the exchange of ideas and the overlap of interest between an Italian alchemist, a British queen, a Dutch painter, a French jeweler and a biologist.

* Also see Anthony Bailey, A View of Delft: Vermeer Then and Now (London: Chatto & Windus, 2001), p. 123, 124.
** For an English summary see The Edinburgh Philosophical Journal October 1839-April 1840 (Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1840), v. 28, p. 114, 115.

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