History of Mother of Pearl

History of Mother of Pearl

One of the treasured materials I love to use in my jewelry creation is Mother-of-Pearl. For years, I’ve loved the iridescent shimmer and shine of shells, and I’ve been intrigued by the fact that it’s made in nature to protect the animal it houses.

Part of my process when I choose the materials for my handcrafted jewelry is to research the material and its origin of use in jewelry and other decorative arts. Mother-of-Pearl, and its use in the arts, has a fascinating history which I am excited to share with you.

Mother of pearl shell and interior and buttons

Mother-of-Pearl in Nature

Mother-of-Pearl is the inner layer of the shell certain species of mollusks. Mother-of-Pearl is a strong and resilient material, and its main purpose is to offer protection for the animal it houses. The Mother-of-Pearl layer is smooth and shiny, helping to reduce the possibility of irritation or injury to the living mollusk. 

The inner layer, made of a calcium-based material called “nacre,” is created in a process similar to how pearls are created. When an irritant, like a grain of sand, enters the shell of a bi-valve mollusk, the mollusk secretes thin layers of nacre to coat the irritant and reduce the amount of damage it can cause to the living animal.

Every species of the mollusk family creates an inner layer of nacre for its shell, but some of the most beautiful come from the pearl oyster, freshwater pearl mussels, and the abalone.  The "nacre" of the abalone shell served as my muse when designing some of the core pieces in my Aurora Collection. 

The abalone shell fragments that I use in my RTJ pieces like Muse and Echo come from the species of abalone known as New Zealand Blackfoot Paua. Unlike other species used for mother-of-pearl, the Blackfoot Paua is not a bivalve oyster, but is actually a type of snail. Its shell is highly prized because it comes in many colors, from pale pink to vibrant purple and even dark, almost black.

These amazing creatures are endemic to New Zealand and found throughout the country. They are most abundant on shallow reefs, and commonly harvested by divers for their popularity as both a delicacy in local cuisine and use of the remaining shell in jewelry and art. Because of this, there are strict limitations on the quantity a diver can obtain when harvesting the Blackfoot Pau.

The origin of the Mother-of-Pearl "buttons" featured in my RTJ pieces Colorful Zinnia and Intricacy is unfortunately unknown, but their iridescent beauty will remain a forever favorite in my collection. 

Mother of pearl inlaid jewelry boxes

Mother-of-Pearl and Abalone Shell in Art Forms 

Mother-of-Pearl is a beautiful material and, like the pearls it often houses, it has a rare iridescence that has made it perfect for use in fine jewelry. Though mother-of-pearl it is more common and affordable than pearl gemstones, its affordability doesn’t diminish its place as a treasured material and a valuable addition to many decorative arts

Despite its strength, mother of-pearl is typically used for decorative purposes. Individual pieces of mother-of-pearl shell can be cut to size, then carved, etched or engraved to enhance their beauty. Historically, mother-of-pearl was used as a decorative inlay in all types of objects, from flatware to musical instruments, examples of which abound at auction houses and museums today.

Mother-of-pearl inlays include game boards, furniture, card cases, vases, and desk accessories like pens and inkwells. As the availability of mother-of-pearl increased in the late 1700s, jewelry and buttons made of mother-of-pearl became more popular. The classic Victorian-era mother-of-pearl button was tiny and petite, but as their popularity grew, so did the size and the intricacy of the buttons. Buttons with engraving and etching, or carved into unique shapes, were developed in the 1800s and remain popular today.

While today’s mother-of-pearl jewelry has a bohemian or beachy vibe, Victorian era mother-of-pearl jewelry was often considered formal. Cameos and long strings of beads made from mother-of-pearl were popular, as were ornately carved earrings and pendants. Both today and in antiquity, mother-of-pearl-inlaid rings and brooches are popular.

Aurora collection mother of pearl necklaces

Mother-of-Pearl Jewelry by RTJ

In my own collection, I am inspired by the ornate antique mother-of-pearl buttons I’ve found at local shops, and by the beachy vibe of chunks of mother-of-pearl shell. Browse the Aurora Collection to see how I've transformed this magical material into jewelry for you.