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Mother Of Pearl – Opal From The Sea

Mother of pearl, nicknamed the opal of the sea because of its iridescent luster and play of colors, comes in many variations. They are not just white, but have a range of beautiful colors and patterns, due to which mollusk they come from.

Popular in many types of craft, it is often used as inlays in boxes, furniture and musical instruments and even for buttons.

The Chinese have used mother of pearl as inlay in lacquer since 1600 BC, creating the most wonderful objects with intricate and beautiful mother of pearl patterns. But, what is most interesting for us: It is also highly usable for jewelry.

But what is Mother of pearl exactly?
A pearl is created inside a mollusk or oyster. When a foreign object enters the oyster, either put there by man or by nature, the mollusk starts to produce a substance called Nacre and covers the object in order to protect itself. The result is a pearl. The inside of the mollusk is also covered in Nacre to protect the oyster, and this amazing iridescent substance is called mother of pearl, simply because it is the substance creating or mothering a pearl. It occurs in both fresh water and salt water mollusks.

Nacre is created by two substances.
One is hard and brittle and is made by plates of aragonite which is secreted by the oyster and contains calcium carbonate and conchiolin, which is a natural protein.
The other is an organic material similar to silk and is layered between the aragonite plates. The result is a strong but flexible substance.

Irregularities are developed as the Nacre is formed, so not two pieces of mother of pearl is alike. When used by artisans, they use this to their advantage. The Nacre appears iridescent because the varying thickness of the plates reflects the wavelengths of light differently. The result is a beautiful play of colors on the surface, changing when viewed from different angles. And this is what makes mother of pearl so popular, giving it the much earned name; the opal of the sea.

The layers of nacre create the mollusk’s house, or shell. The outside is rough and varies in color and texture just as the inside, due to the type of oyster. When harvesting for MOP, the outer layers are removed to get to the beautiful Nacre underneath. Some oysters are harvested only for pearls or MOP, while others are used for food and the MOP come as an additional plus.

Properties of MOP
Nacre is a soft material and has a hardness of 2 ½ - 4 ½ on the Mohs scale. It is therefore prone to scratching and chipping, and should be treated with care. Due to its softness it can be carved and etched for enhancements, and also bleached and/or dyed to enhance its coloration without masking the iridescence.

It is very suitable for mosaic and used as such in both jewelry and other objects. Cameos are often carved from MOP, and some have a typical pale blue illuminescent appearance much like a pearl. Although it is soft, it can be very difficult to carve due to its delicate state, so these cameos can be costly. Some oysters, like the Black pearl produces Nacre that has a cat’s eye effect.

Nacre is graded the same way as gemstones and uses the same enhancement codes. Therefore you can get MOP of very high quality, like some of the Paua shells, but also low grade MOP which are plentiful.

Types of MOP:
There are many types of mollusks that produce Nacre suitable for jewelry or inlays. Some are pearl bearing and some not.

The most beautiful ones are the Abalones.
My husband and I went on a trip to New Zealand a few years ago, and were stunned by a beautiful blue-green substance that the NZ’s used for jewelry or inlay in Maori wooden artifacts. The beautiful stuff was Paua shell, also called Rainbow Abalone, which only grows around the coastal waters of the south island of New Zealand. The harvesting of these beautiful mollusks is restricted and can only be harvested by free divers, which means no scuba divers. It has been used by the Maoris, the natives of New Zealand for centuries. Paua shells range from green to blue, pink and purple.

Paua is only one of many types of Abalone. Abalone has many names like: Sea Opal, Sedet, Normans shell, Awabi and Sea ear, depending on where they grow. Most Abalone comes from the southern tip and Western Cape region of South Africa. Sadly some of them are on the brink of extinction. Abalones are very treasured due to the amazing coloration and iridescent play.

White mother of pearl comes from a pearl bearing oyster, and is the most common one. It has a high reflective quality and a generous play of coloration on a white background.

Iridescent nacre is often mainly pink and green, while variegated Nacre is multicolored. Black lipped shell has a light gray to black color with iridescent rainbow sheen of silver to pale pink and green. Brown lipped shell is tan brown in warm subtle tones and a creamy iridescence. Then you have the Golden lip shell which runs from white to a yellow gold tone and has a natural iridescence.

You can also get MOP that is not so reflective, like Stone MOP and Mat MOP which is a dull gray with low reflective quality.

Other names of MOP are Burmese shell that comes from the sea around Merugi archipelago, Manila shell from the Philippines. Then you have the Osmena Pearls which are Nacre layers form chambered Nautilus shells, often also called blister pearl from the Nautilus shell.

Shapes and uses in jewelry: Often MOP comes in flat pieces, cut into various shapes like coins, squares, triangular, hearts and so on, and they are usually low in price. Because of their low price you can create great jewelry where you can use plenty of beads without worrying much about the cost.

Sadly the price also influence the way we look at jewelry made from Mother of pearl. You can buy it cheap, so jewelry made with MOP are seen as something that is disposable. But you can also integrate them into your jewelry designs in a way that makes them look like something very valuable and exclusive, depending on what type of MOP you use.

Like I mentioned earlier not all MOP types are cheap. Paua shells and other multicolored Abalones are quite costly, both because of their beauty, but also due to restrictions on harvesting them. On New Zealand you can get some awesome jewelry with Paua shell of highest quality. Buying Paua shell beads online, you rarely find those very blue and green variations seen in New Zealand, mostly they are green to pink and purple. Sometimes MOP sheets are assembled to make thicker beads with pattern on both sides, probably due to the thickness, or rather thinness of the mollusks shell.

Small MOP bits are sometimes used to laminate resin beads, creating beads that look like small pieces of mosaic. Usually done with the Nacre un-treated or with dyed or bleached pieces, this is a way to create beads of more 3-dimentional proportions, not just flat ones, and at the same time keep the iridescence of the flat Nacre.

Cabochons from MOP are always flat with little or no difference in thickness. This may have an impact on how you can use them in your jewelry designs. They are not so easy to bezel, unless you use very small beads, like #15 seed beads.

You can get round mother of pearl beads as well, but I find that they lack some of the luster you see with the flat beads. They are not pearls, but MOP shaped into round beads by cutting and polishing.

Then you have chips and sticks cut from MOP. They are often irregular in shape and size, which can lead to some very interesting jewelry designs. But these also often lack the iridescent sheen of MOP, and are often lower grades of quality.

MOP can be carved and engraved, and some are cut into flowers, leaf, animals and other beautiful shapes. Pendants of half of the shell or mollusk, where the matte and dull outer layers are removed, makes lovely pendants and can even be used for instance as a focal or cabochon in a bead embroidered collar or cuff.

Due to the low price on most beads made from Mother of pearl, you can use it lavishly in your design. Sometimes the sheer amount of MOP pieces can make a design unique, and sometimes the placement of a few, but well picked beads heighten the elegance of your design. So enjoy the beauty of this magnificent gift from the sea.

You can make your own faux mother of pearl. See how to do it in this tutorial: Make A Bangle With A Tin Can, Clay Gun And Faux Mother Of Pearl Inlay

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