PEARLS: A NATURAL HISTORY at the Royal Ontario Museum (100 Queen's Park), to January 9. Weekdays $15, stu/srs $12; weekends $18, stu/srs $15; Friday after 4:30 pm $10, stu/srs $5. 416-586-8000 . Rating: NNN Rating: NNNNN
Did you know that some clams and algae live together in a symbiotic relationship, or that despite the myth, pearls rarely form around grains of sand? The Pearls show at the ROM is full of such miraculous facts. I hate to describe reality by referring to television, but this exhibit is like the Discovery channel with more walking. The great variety of pearls includes the necklace Joe DiMaggio gave Marilyn Monroe on their honeymoon, but, unfortunately, not Liz Taylor's priceless gem, which was only displayed at the ROM for one exclusive evening.
The most significant story in this touring exhibit concerns the mass marketing of cultured pearls in the 20th century. While natural pearls are rare and usually odd-shaped, by the 1930s the technique of culturing perfect pearls in quantity was mastered. All that was left to do was create a demand for the new supply. A persistent PR campaign put a beautiful model in a dress made of pearls, and soon the nacre had become a girl's second-best friend.
The industry's clever exploitation of the exotic rarity of natural pearls to enhance the appeal and value of the mass-produced ones serves as a fascinating case study in the power of marketing.
Too bad the show only glosses over the story.
The rest of the exhibit offers a barrage of well-presented but occasionally repetitive anecdotes in the form of interactive videos and elaborate displays. We learn that freshwater pearls are more colourful than their salty counterparts.
Give yourself at least an hour if you want to take it all in. As we were ushered out the door, we asked the security guys what the Liz Taylor pearl was like. One told us he could still smell her perfume on it. "I thought that was kind of gross. Don't they wash it?"
Now, that's priceless.