Restringing the Pearl
April 26–June 6, 2023
The Jewelry Library, New York, New York
- Everyone has a story about pearls—that’s at the heart of this exhibition curated by Petra Class and Biba Schutz
- Audio recordings of the artists telling their pearl stories appear center stage
- The stories relate to a corresponding visual work through a variety of themes
Everyone has a pearl story. That’s the essence of Restringing the Pearl, a group exhibition co-curated by Petra Class and Biba Schutz, on view at the Jewelry Library through June 6. The curators are both jewelers themselves. Motivated by recurring conversations about their own relationships to pearls, they set out to collect and explore pearl stories from fellow makers. “Pearls brought up so many memories for Petra and me–memories of our families, special occasions, growing up. We wanted stories to be the springboard for the works themselves.” In this exhibition the audio recordings (also available as text transcripts) appear center stage. The artworks and stories explore the dynamic tension between spoken and visual language.
The deeply intimate space of The Jewelry Library contrasts with its immediate surroundings. It’s located in a midtown Manhattan skyscraper that houses a long row of small accessory wholesalers. Their kiosks display glittery earrings and bedazzled hair clips, all hung on the wall in crinkly cellophane packets. The Jewelry Library makes use of its kiosk space in a very different way. Step off the elevator on the eighth floor, and the gallery is immediately visible to the left. Unlike the wholesalers’ kiosks, the gallery doors are thrown wide open in welcome. One wall is painted black, the opposite white. Four chairs face each other in the center of the small room, inviting conversation.
QR code stickers accompany the artwork hung on the walls. When scanned with a smartphone, they take viewers to an audio recording of the artist telling their pearl story. The recordings range from 20 seconds to just under six minutes. There are some truly stunning pieces of art in the exhibition, but the stories made a lasting impression on my recollection of it.
The stories are each engaging, and many are deeply moving. They relate to their corresponding visual works through a variety of themes. Each artist has been so intentional with their narrative that I don’t want to spoil the listening experience by giving away too much of what each one is about. So I will focus on how the audio impacts the viewing experience and contributes to the narrative arc of the exhibition.
As the curators intended, the stories really do lead this exhibition. Listening to the audio recordings keeps viewers engaged longer with the displayed artworks. This is not an exhibition that can be fully understood through a brief stroll or quick glance around the room. The stories are what bring this show to life. As someone prone to museum fatigue, I appreciate the small size of this exhibition since its structure asks viewers to spend more time with each piece.
Most object-based exhibitions that I’ve seen position the artwork as the subject of the show and use text as an explanatory tool to help viewers connect to what they see. This exhibition, however, reminds me of a picture book, which uses visuals to help viewers connect to the text or story. In Restringing the Pearl, the stories are not meant to teach anything. They are works in themselves.
While listening to Petra Class’s story, my gaze rested on her piece Hanging by a Thread. The long delicate necklace, made of gold-imprinted fabric and pearls spaced along a slender tangled thread, swayed gently in the breeze of the blowing air conditioner. I listened as she explained the significance of her mother’s double-strand pearl necklace as a symbol of social and economic recovery after living through the Great Depression and the Nazi occupation in Germany. Class’s necklace helps ground her emotional story by offering viewers a visual way of understanding how she interprets her own family’s legacy.
Although the artworks on display are visually diverse representations of pearls, the recorded stories reveal a dominant narrative that may not have been so obvious without the audio component. Themes of matriliny—the practice of tracing descent through the mother’s line—value, and heritage run through Class’s contribution and are echoed in the stories of Biba Schutz, Susie Ganch, and Marjorie Simon. Their similar family experience is prominent in my recollection of the show. This might also be because their stories are some of the longest recordings of the bunch. I wonder if the stories would feel more balanced or allow other narratives to stand out more if all of the recordings were the same length.
As moving as the stories of familial memory and resilience mentioned above are, the exploration of pearl stories in this exhibition becomes most interesting in the pieces that push against them as emotionally or economically precious. Tanya Crane’s My Kind of Pearl, for example, also explores themes of value and social aspiration. However, it bursts the alluring bubble around pearls that often masks the problematic side of such aspirations. The circular shape, and a rigid cluster of beads shrouded in the center of a soft furry matrix, evokes a pearl growing inside an oyster. The piece visually references pearls, but there is no pearl or pearl-like material in sight.
Crane’s story describes her desire to attain the wealthy lifestyle she saw in John Hughes movies as a teenager. She considers a particular moment in Sixteen Candles, when the young characters dress up in their mothers’ fur coats and pearls, as the “epitome of class and glamour.” As an adult, Crane rejects this aspiration. She has come to understand how the portrayal of wealth, particularly in Hughes’ films, is often also rooted in misogyny, classism, and racism. Crane’s artwork beautifully demonstrates that she has the power to create and decide what is valuable.
Several other artists’ pearl stories explore themes outside of value or personal histories. Aaron Decker looks at the allegorical use of pearls in literature. His piece Morning Star 2 is part of an ongoing series of works in which he deals with tensions between good and evil. A small spiky metal ball and two cartoony feet with little oval pearls for toes protrude off the surface of a pink enameled rectangle. It looks like a creature in a video game. The lighthearted imagery of the piece contrasts with the concepts that Decker wrestles with in exploring the symbolic weight that names and materials can carry in storytelling.
Doris Betz focuses on the materiality of pearls. She recites an original poem about the physical characteristics of pearls, their movement in particular. Betz displays three beaded necklaces. The centerpiece of one is a strand of white seed beads coiled into a tangle. Another displays a similar tangle with brown seed beads, but the lines are looser and less confined. The third is like a paint brush. Strands of clear and black beads are bound at the top and lie relaxed toward the bottom. Betz’s trilogy does not visually command attention the way some other pieces in the exhibition space do, but they exhibit a thoughtfulness and a unique exploration of material that strengthens the collection.
Pearls are an enduring symbol of elegance and dignified femininity. Passing down pearls is a tradition in many families. This maintains their value as something precious, even if they are barely worn. More and more people, however, do seem to be reaching to the bottoms of their jewelry boxes and donning pearls once again. Culture and style magazines such as Marie Claire and Penta have been writing about their return to popularity. While some fixate on pearls as a rising trend, others are adamant about their timelessness. These perspectives seem to oppose one another, but make a little more sense when differentiating between what is fashionable and what is valuable.
Pearls are timeless because they continue to be considered valuable even when they’re not fashionable. Their value is in what they represent. As pearls enjoy what some might call a comeback, Restringing the Pearl explores how their significance endures and evolves across collective and personal experience.
Note: To see all the pieces and listen to the stories, click here.
 Biba Schutz, on https://thejewelrylibrary.com/exhibits/restringing-the-pearl/.
 Hear his story here: https://restringingthepearl.com/aarondecker/.