Mother of Pearl Silver Jewelry History


Reflecting the rainbows of the ocean beds, iridescent Mother of Pearl is the Opal of the sea. Like Amber, Mother of Pearl is organic, but unlike any other gemstone it forms locked away within its creator: the mollusk.

15th Century Europeans, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, brave Mother of Pearl its name. Although the beauty of Mother of Pearl, birthstone of June, has been used in the decoration of precious jewels and ornaments as far back as 3000 years before the birth of Christ.


Mother of Pearl: Crystals of calcium carbonate and conchiolin, secreted by the living organism within a mollusk, which build up and solidify coating the inner surface of the shell. Also known as Nacre (na.ker): from the Arabic word 'Naqqarah' meaning shell.

Mother Of Pearl In Mesopotamia

In the 1920s, a series of tombs were excavated to the east of the site of Babylon in the Middle East.

The tombs were of Sumerian royalty from ancient Mesopotamia and yielded a treasure trove of amulets, rings and necklaces made of gold, silver, ivory, amethyst, carnelian, lapis and other semi-precious gemstones. However, it was the unearthing of several beautiful wooden ornaments and musical instruments inlaid with Mother of Pearl, that illustrated just how sophisticated this ancient culture was.

The Silver lyre of Ur, found in one of the graves in the Royal Cemetery, dates back to between 2600 and 2400 BC The Silver lyre, ancestor to the modern harp, was found in the Great Death Pit accompanied by 70 men and women who had been buried with their Queen. Miraculously well persevered, the lyre was absolutely covered in sheet silver and inlaid with Mother of Pearl. The silver cow's head decorating the front has inlaid eyes of shell and lapis lazuli, and the edges, borders and plaques of the sound box are inlaid with Mother of Pearl. Such instruments were important parts of rituals in the royal courts and temples. There are more representations of lyre players inlaid in Mother of Pearl on the infamous Standard of Ur, a wooden box recognized to recount the story of Ur.

The method the Sumerian artists used to decorate wooden objects was to cut a design from the shell, cut the same form out of the wooden setting, and to fill the spaces and setting of the engraving with bitumen, which after acting as glue hardened forming the background. Animal scenes, inlayed with Mother of Pearl shell and colored gemstones such as lapis or carnelian, were particularly popular motifs used in such decoration. This method of inlay was popular throughout Asia and Asia-Minor up to the time of the Ottoman Empire, and although refined the same method is still practiced by the artisans of Turkey and Egypt today.

Mother Of Pearl In Asia

In Asia, centuries before the birth of Christ, the Chinese learned that beads or tiny figures of deities slipped between the soft mantle and the shell of a living mollusk soon became covered with Mother of Pearl. These beads and carvings were then taken to the temples and offered to the gods in the hope that they would bestow good luck upon the donor. Mother of Pearl, like jade, soon held a position of high status in Chinese society and became linked with stories of gods and mythical creatures.

One such story is the tale told in Tao classic The History of The Great Light, written by Huai-Nan-Tzu during the Han dynasty at the beginning of the first millennia AD In the book there are eight stories of eight mortals who, through their good deeds, were rewarded with everlasting life. The eighth of these stories tells the tale of Ho-Hsien-Ku, who was taught in a vision that if she ate Mother of Pearl she would gradually become immortal. She did as the vision instructed, living in the mountains and ever dispensing with mortal food. Ho-Hsien-Ku started to float from peak to peak becoming more and more ethereal, finally attaining her quest she was renamed The Immortal Maiden symbolized in the Tao philosophy by the lotus flower.

During the Confuciusan Tang dynasty, as Buddhism spread to Korea and Japan, China absorbed and unified a vast territory that had previously been divided into North and South China. The Tang dynasty, reflecting from 600 AD to 900 AD, was a period of widespread prosperity and trade that stretched from inner Asia to the archipelagos of South East Asia. With the promise of great wealth, many mariners and merchants from all over the Pacific were attracted to China, bringing with them precious cargos of Pearls, Mother of Pearl and many other precious and semi-precious gemstones.

In ancient China Mother of Pearl, apart from finding its way into rings and necklaces, was used in profusion as a decorative inlay in ornaments such as vanity mirrors and brushes, and in later centuries would feature heavily as an inlay in Chinese and Korean furniture. Interestingly, the Chinese also used Mother of Pearl in medicine, prescribing it for over a thousand years as an aid to reduce heart palpitations, dizziness, and high blood pressure.

Mother Of Pearl In Mesoamerica

In 8th Century Mesoamerica there existed an ancient civilization called the Toltecs. Ancestors to the Aztecs, they were feared and revered respectively for their military prowess and artistic culture. The Toltec had widespread impacts from the Mayan protests in Guatemala to the Anasazi Indians in Arizona. Archeological excavations as far inland as Chaco Canyon, land marked by the towering Fajada Butte and its mysterious Sun Dagger rock carvings, have disclosed Toltec treasures of ornamental jewelry and sculptures inlaid with Mother of Pearl from as far away as the Pacific Rim.

Still to this day the descendants of the Toltecs, the Yaqui Indians of Mexico immortalized in the shamanic tales of Carlos Castaneda, wear a necklace called the Hoporosim. The necklace is made of Mother of Pearl and is believed to provide the wearer with protection from evil.

In America's Southwest of today, Navajo, Pueblo, and Hopi native American silversmiths, trained in age-old lapidary techniques fuse the ancient into contemporary designs using sterling silver, gold, lapis lazuli, pearl, fire opal, coral and of course Mother of Pearl .

Mother Of Pearl In The Pacific

By the 1500s Europe's growing demand for Mother of Pearl used in gold and silver rings, necklaces, brooches and buttons had all but depleted the supplies of Mother of Pearl in the Persian Gulf. Although the nobility of Europe were already taken with a new species of pearl producing oyster heralding from the Pacific: Pinctada Margaritifera, renowned for its spectacular gray to black color and large size it surpassed the beauty of any of its equivalents found in the Persian Gulf. And with the opening of new trade routes through the world, particularly to Asia, the Pacific witnessed a rush of European traders and explorers eager to profit from its wealth of Mother of Pearl.

In 1568 the Solomon Islands, known as The Pearl of the Pacific, were discovered by the Spanish explorer, Alvaro de Mendana. On discovering the Islands rich bounty of gold and Mother of Pearl he cave the archipelago its current name, believing that he had found the mythical source of King Solomon's mines. However, it was in fact the Australians, a Neolithic people from South-East Asia, who had first settled the Solomon Islands more than 4000 years prior to Mendana's arrival. Evidence of their great wealth of Mother of Pearl can be seen in the inlay appearing in many of their tribal shields and statues of gods and spirits.

From Tahiti to Bora Bora the Polynesian archipelago stretches out to the size of Western Europe. The Islands were first discovered by the European Magellan, and again in 1595 by Mendana. But long before their arrival Mother of Pearl and Pearl had already attained a god-like status.

In Polynesian lore, the iridescence of Mother of Pearl is attributed to the spirits of coral and sand, Okana and Uaro, who as legend has it adorned the Tahitian oysters in glistening cloaks covered in all the colors of the fish of the ocean. It is also said that Oro, the Polynesian god of peace and fertility, came down to earth and offered a special pearl called Te Ufi, the black pearl, to the beautiful princess of Bora Bora as a sign of his love. But by the middle of the 18th Century with Europe's lust for Mother of Pearl the Pacific Islands had been practically beaten bear of its oysters, and with its disappearance the stories passed into legend.

However, in 1880 France gained control of Tahiti, what is now called French Polynesia, and actions were taken to restrict the plundering of the seabed. Other countries followed suite and by the 1900s, with the spread of western civilization, restrictions were imposed on the fishing industry through the Pacific, and the world had to look elsewhere in their search for Mother of Pearl.

European exploration of the Pacific Islands in search of Mother of Pearl continued, and in the 1920s it was discovered for the last time on a remote Island of the New Hebrides. But when explorers Sperry and Evans stumbled upon the use of Mother of Pearl, it was far from what they expected. They wrote, In the opposite corner of the central hut a line of mummies were placed like a barricade … Bushy mops of hair still clung to the heads, and their faces bore masks of clay, with huge eyes of Mother of Pearl that shone through the gloom staring at us with an uncanny effect. In fact the mummies were not ancestral members of the tribe, but were the bodies of a rival tribe … of cannibals!

In 19th Century America, where Mother of Pearl had been previously used as an inlay in furniture it found a new use in fashion, as buttons. Iowa became the center of the trade, shipping billions of iridescent fasteners until World War II, when newly invented plastics undercut the prices of Mother of Pearl buttons, all but driving them out of the market. The majority of Americas Mother of Pearl was sourced from the Gulf of California's Abalone oysters. But these sources, like others throughout the world, were almost depleted and it was not until the discovery of new-cultured farming techniques in Japan that the world's Mother of Pearl producing oysters saw a return in numbers.

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