Italian film director Frederico Fellini said, “All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster's autobiography.'' Fellini was known for his works where dreams and reality mingle, and in the pearl he saw stories, untold and fantastical, eventually unravel.

The quote welcomes visitors of the Abu Dhabi International Pearl Festival (ADIPF) to a dizzying array of pearls of all shapes, colours, sizes, origins and ages, on display in Abu Dhabi until January 27 through a collaboration between the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) and the American Natural History Museum.

From earrings to pendants, brooches to dresses, and fossilised pearls to informational videos, “Pearls: A Natural History'' lets people in on some of the pearl's greatest moments and deepest secrets.

Over centuries, the pearl has captivated scientists and romantics alike, proving to be rich in its evolution, and adorning the refined, glamorous and wealthy.

“I absolutely love pearls; they hide my wrinkles,'' reads a note written by Barbara Bush accompanied by a Kenneth Lane imitation pearl necklace on loan from the former First Lady. “I have worn them for so long that I hardly feel dressed without them.''

Other celebrity pearl sightings at the “Pearls: A Natural History'' exhibition include a Neil Lane pendant worn by actress Jennifer Garner at the 2005 Screen Actors Guild Awards, made with baroque pearls, diamonds, pink topaz and gold.

A Miriam Haskell necklace, made with imitation pearls and rhinestones, worn by legendary Hollywood actress Joan Crawford is also on display, as well as a prototype of the necklace worn by Audrey Hepburn in her role as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

A brooch made of natural pearls, amethysts, garnets, chrysoberyls and gold is also on show, a gift presented by Prince Albert to his wife Queen Victoria on their third wedding anniversary in 1843.

The piece, made with four Scottish freshwater pearls, prompted the Queen to write in her journal: “My beloved Albert gave me a lovely brooch which is so original in design and which I am delighted with.'' As for Marylin Monroe — the queen of all things glamourous — a replica of an Akoya cultured pearl necklace given to her by Joe DiMaggio on their honeymoon in Tokyo in 1954 is also on display.

Behind the lustre of celebrity jewellery, elaborate clothing and royal portraits, the exhibition also highlights the formation of pearls, their various colours, shapes and kinds. Instructional and interactive videos can be found while walking through the exhibition, and a video featuring a tiny shrimp trapped inside the body of a black-lipped pearl oyster plays on a bulbous screen, explaining how pearls form when a foreign particle accidentally lodges within a living mollusk.

Pearls from Australia, the Carribean, the Eastern Pacific Ocean, the US, France, Spain, Cuba, Vietnam, China, Denmark, French Polynesia and Thailand, among other countries, can be seen, but most impressively, pearls from prehistoric periods can also be found at the exhibition.

Under the marine pearls section, fossil pearls from the late Cretacious Period (83 million years ago) and the Ecocene Period (50 million years ago) are displayed; while the former have lost their lustre, the latter have retained their nacreous shine.

Pearls in the Gulf
Alongside “Pearls: A Natural History'' is an exhibition dedicated to the pearls of the Gulf region. The “Gulf Pearl Exhibition'' can be seen at the Al Majedy Bin Dhahir Hall at the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation.

Photographs and videos about the ancient tradition of pearling in the Gulf can be viewed, and traditional pearling tools are also on display, including brass sieves for grading pearls, a pearl accounting book used by merchants to indicate prices and information, pearl merchant chests, as well as copper pearl scales.