Mother-of-Pearl

Mother-of-pearl is defined as the hard, smooth, pearly, iridescent nacreous layers that make up the inner surface of a pearl-producing mollusk’s shell. According to Webster’s Dictionary, the name has been around since the 1500s, and no one seems to mind that it isn’t really a pearl’s mother at all. In fact, it should probably be called house-of-pearl. The pearl’s mother is the living mussel, for it is the living organism that lays down the aragonite and calcite that forms both the nacre of the pearl and mother-of-pearl.

History. Seashells—specifically those whose inner shells have the beauty of a pearl—have been used for ornamental purposes from as far back as 3200 B.C., as evidenced by artifacts found in ancient Egypt. The beauty of mother-of-pearl lent itself naturally to adornment in the form of earrings, necklaces, pendants, and breast plates. Its relative durability (if the shell was thick enough) made it usable for small hand tools such as scrapers, scoopers, and spoons as well as smaller smooth items such as fishing hooks and harpoon points.

Colors. Like pearl, the colors of mother-of-pearl are determined by the species of mollusk. Pinctada martensii (akoya) and Pinctada maxima (South Sea) shells are commonly used for white mother-of-pearl, with the Tahitian green- and black-lipped Pinctada margaritifera being used for darker mother-of-pearl. Abalone, gold-lipped oysters, and a host of other varieties of shell can be used for mother-of-pearl jewelry.

Qualities. The quality requirements established for pearl also apply to mother-of-pearl, including size, shape, color, luster, surface quality, and nacre quality. Mother-of-pearl is limited in size—the shell grows only so big. Obviously you’re not looking for roundness, but shape should be considered for the piece of jewelry one is trying to produce.

Uses. Today you can purchase the entire shell, or rectangular “blanks” to use in creating your own mother-of-pearl piece. Purchased by suppliers in the hundreds of pounds, shells come from all over the world, including the Philippines, Tahiti, Australia, New Zealand (abalone), and even from locations in the United States such as Tennessee, California (also for abalone), and Texas.

There are many different uses for mother-of-pearl. Household items such as buttons were commonly made of mother-of-pearl before plastics came along, and mother-of-pearl buttons are still used on some finer-quality garments and children’s clothing. Mother-of-pearl inlay is seen in many industries, especially in hand-made and hand-finished furniture, billiard tables, and musical instruments. Mother-of-pearl knife handles also are popular.

The Chinese were famous for their games and their mother-of-pearl gaming chips back in the 18th and 19th centuries. The games are gone, but the chips—carved and engraved with beautiful Chinese themes, commissioned British designs, and their owners’ monograms—now are used in designer jewelry. Other uses for mother-of-pearl in jewelry include inlay, cameos, and watch faces.

One of the more interesting uses for mother-of-pearl is for caviar spoons. Sterling silver or other metals (other than gold) will impart a metallic taste to the caviar. And caviar is not good for metal, either—it will tarnish silver and discolor stainless steel. Mother-of-pearl, however, will not affect the caviar, nor will the caviar affect it. Plus, mother-of-pearl is inexpensive, easily manufactured, and there’s plenty of it.

Prices. Blanks of mother-of-pearl can be purchased for $10 for “B” grade lesser-quality material, up to about $100 per piece for the highest-quality presentation grade. Presentation grade mother-of-pearl is priced at just over $25 for a large 4-in. x 1-in. blank of Pinctada maxima. A 1-in. x 2-in. Tahitian black-lip blank could cost upwards of $30, and 3-in. x 1-in. abalone can be priced even higher, at $50 per piece.

Enhancements. While it is reported that some mother-of-pearl is dyed, most of what you will see is natural color. It could, however, be a laminate. Man-made laminates are typically 97% shell and 3% epoxy. Many laminates are commonly made from New Zealand abalone for two reasons: the shell is thin and the abalone pattern hides the construction seams. Abalone laminate can come in pieces as large as 9 in. x 7 in. Natural mother-of-pearl knife handles, in comparison, rarely exceed 4.5 in. or 5 in. x 1.25 in.—enough to accent a 5-in. or 6-in. straight blade.

Bench care and cleaning. Treat mother-of-pearl as you would pearl. It’s soft and can be scratched relatively easily. Unlike pearl, however, mother-of-pearl can be easily repolished, depending on the thickness of the piece.

For more information on Donna Chambers’s mother-of-pearl gaming chip jewels, call (914) 287-0303 (White Plains, N.Y). For more information on Kabana’s line of inlay jewelry, call (505) 843-9330 (Albuquerque, N.M.) or visit the company’s Web site at www.kabana.net.

Special thanks to Barbara Chaplin, owner of the Mother-Of-Pearl Co., Franklin, N.C., www.knifehandles.com, and to the Seattle Caviar Company, (206) 323-3005, www.caviar.com.