Accounts of Cleopatra VII’s (69-30 BCE) enchanting life story abound, but the story most likely to pique the interest of jewelry lovers involves a rather large and valuable pearl that the beautiful queen apparently drank!
According to the story, Cleopatra bet her lover Marc Antony that she could spend 10 million sesterces on one meal. To prove herself (while showing off her opulence), she removed one of her earrings, which apparently contained one of two of the largest pearls known in the land, dissolved it in vinegar, and then drank it.
In the words of Pliny the Elder (23 - 79 A.D.), “She ordered the second course to be served. In accordance with previous instructions, the servants placed in front of her only a single vessel containing vinegar. She took one earring off, and dropped the pearl in the vinegar, and when it was wasted away, swallowed it.” And the bet was won.
Until recently, this story was thought to be mere myth, but research indicates that this trick is actually possible.
"All you need is vinegar and a pearl. In my experiments, I used a white vinegar sold in supermarkets. Wine vinegar was most common in the Greco-Roman world, so it is likely that's what Cleopatra used," classicist Prudence Jones of Montclair State University explained to Discovery News. The acetic acid in the vinegar reacts with the calcium carbonate in the pearl and produces calcium acetate, water, and carbon dioxide. Interestingly, the cocktail wouldn’t taste as acidic as straight vinegar because the calcium carbonate somewhat neutralizes the acid in the vinegar.
The effect isn’t instantaneous, however. It takes roughly “24 to 36 hours to dissolve a pearl weighing approximately one gram.” The end result is a translucent gel-like substance.
Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar at Stanford University's Departments of Classics and History of Science, suggests that the myth—and its plausibility—may give us insight into the kind of clever character Cleopatra was:
“I think this research has convincingly demonstrated the technique that Cleopatra could have used to dissolve a pearl. We already know that this curious, intelligent queen carried out toxicological experiments," Mayor told Discovery News. "It's likely she softened the pearl in advance, then crushed it and placed it in a goblet to dazzle Marc Antony with her wealth and arcane scientific expertise.”
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Some notable artists have a penchant for jewelry making in addition to their pursuit of masterpiece paintings and sculptures. Here's a glimpse at just two modern artists who also created fascinating jewelry.
Alexander Calder (1898-1976) was an American sculptor remembered for his introduction of mobile sculptures—sculptures that moved in response to touch or air currents. Calder’s work is generally categorized as surrealist or abstract. He also created wire figures and monumental sculptures, painted aircrafts and cars, and crafted jewelry!
Over the course of his career, Calder created over 2,000 pieces of jewelry. Many were gifts to his loved ones. Using brass, steel, ceramic, wood, and glass, Calder took inspiration from Africa, among other foreign locales, to create original and beautiful pieces.
Peggy Guggenheim, famous heiress and art collector, was one of the notable wearers of Calder’s jewelry. At the 1942 opening of her New York Gallery (The Art of This Century), she wore one earring by Calder and another by Yves Tanguy to symbolize her allegiance to both surreal and abstract art.
Alexander Calder Bracelet, circa 1930. Brass, silver, and still wire.
Georgia O'Keeffe, Teeny Duchamp (wife of Marcel Duchamp) Jeanne Rucar (wife of the filmmaker Luis Buñuel), and Bella Rosenfeld (wife of painter Marc Chagall) are other figures who enjoyed the gift of Calder’s jewelry.
Alexander Calder Earrings, circa 1940. Silver wire.
Fun fact: Calder first dabbled in jewelry at the age of eight. With copper wire he found in the street, he created jewelry for his sister’s dolls.
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) is undoubtedly a household name, and most of us know him for his cubist and surrealist paintings. But like Calder, Picasso was multi-talented and interested in a variety of media.
In the 1950s and 60s, Pablo collaborated with Jeweler François Hugo to create pieces in high-karat gold.
Le Grand Faune brooch of 23k gold, 20/20 edition François Hugo after Pablo Picasso, 1973.
Perhaps more interesting than Picasso's collaboration with Hugo is the recently-discovered, one-of-kind jewelry he made in the 1930s and 40s. In 1998, it was discovered that Picasso decorated a collection of brooches, rings, and amulets for his lover Dora Maar (their relationship lasted from 1936-1945).
The pieces were found in Maar’s apartment following her death and were later auctioned to bidders from across the globe. Jewelry expert Marc Blondeau recounts the discovery of the jewelry: “The jewelry was all over the place, under beds, in old shoeboxes. She kept it very zealously as a memento to Picasso.” This amazing find was news to even experts in modernist jewelry.
Ink and color pencil drawing by Picasso set in frame-shaped pendant for Dora Maar, circa 1936-1939.
Stone amulets by Picasso for Dora Maar, circa 1936-1939.
Fun fact: A zest for jewelry appears to run in the Picasso family. Paloma Picasso, Pablo’s daughter, has designed jewelry for Tiffany’s.
The fact that world-renowned modern artists have dabbled in jewelry just goes to show that jewelry, more than serve as mere trinkets, can truly be wearable art. What do you think?
You may also be interested in:
Photos: Wikimedia Commons, aleCalder Foundation, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, The Jewelry Loupe