For as long as I can remember I’ve had a Mother of Pearl fish like this swimming around in my various boxes; I didn’t know what it was or where it came from and then when I came across it the other day I decided to try and find out. It turns out it’s a Chinese gaming chip, and the search for information about this lead me to reading more about Mother of Pearl in general.
Mother of Pearl – or nacre (pronounced NAY-ker) is the iridescent lining of certain mollusks, like pearl oysters, fresh water mussels, abalone, turban snails and large top snails, mainly. These clever little creatures create nacre to protect their soft flesh from parasites and debris that would damage them, in much the same way as it coats an irritating grain of sand which then becomes a pearl. Pearls form round one grain of sand, which has either made its way into the shell naturally or has been inserted into the shell manually with the intention of growing a pearl round it. There’s no guarantee that the pearl will grow into a saleable gem, but lining of the shell is a naturally occurring event in all these types of shells which makes it more abundant and therefore a lot cheaper than pearls.
It came as a surprise to archaeologists when they discovered Mother Of Pearl had been used extensively in decorating the interior of Roman villas in Spain because this had not been found in other excavations. Mother of Pearl is very strong but is easy to cut and carve which makes it a wonderful material to work with in all things decorative. The Egyptians used it in their highly prized silver work, decorating spoons and plates with it; during the Chinese Ming dynasty nacre was used extensively, mostly for wonderfully elaborate and beautiful carving (and gaming chips…) and the native North Americans and Australian aboriginals used mother of Pearl for trading, but the oldest piece of mother of pearl ever found has been carbon dated to Neolithic times in the Arabian Peninsular.
The Victorians absolutely loved Mother of Pearl and used it for decorating anything they could. Knife handles, gun handles, tables, boxes, musical instruments, watches, picture frames – and they even came up with special caviar spoons made of Mother of Pearl which didn’t affect the flavour of this delicacy in the same way a metal spoon did. But the Victorians it was who are really responsible for pearl buttons – made from Mother of Pearl, obviously – and they produced them in huge numbers. Pearl buttons always make me think of the Pearly Kings and Queens in London and so I allowed myself to be a bit distracted and went to read about them – find out who they are and how come they love pearl buttons so. It’s a great story.
An orphan called Henry Croft, who grew up in rat infested workhouses, apparently came by a shipload of pearl buttons on the banks of the Thames. He knew and admired the ‘Costers’ – costermongers, who were fruit and vegetable vendors in the London markets – and he loved their style and panache at selling. When he found the buttons, he sewed them all over an old and worn out suit that he had, incorporating patterns and symbols and even slogans like ‘all for charity and pity the poor’, and paraded round his patch in London. The Costers really took to this idea and in a cheeky nod to the West Enders who paraded in the parks wearing their pearls on a Sunday afternoon, the Costers took it one step further, covering their old clothes with hundreds of pearl buttons and creating their own parade, the Lambeth Walk. There are Pearly Kings and Queens in most London boroughs – if not all – and while the first King was elected, his family inherit the title thereafter. Their whole ethos is ‘you win some you lose some – pick yourself up and keep going’ and their charity work is legendary. What a great story well worth the digression.
I suppose the supply of Mother of Pearl will never slow down as long as oysters and mussels are farmed for both food and pearls, but abalone, the shell that produces the wonderful bright pink and blue and green iridescent Mother of Pearl, are in trouble from overfishing, of course. I found it bizarre that abalone is such a sought after specialty food because I had always understood it to be rubbery, but I’ve since been reliably informed that it’s actually delicious when cooked properly, so beautiful and delicious will make it sought after forever, I expect.
But it’s not just the Pearly Kings who love Mother of Pearl… look at this little Mexican magpie made from black marble and Mother of Pearl; no job too small for this beautiful, versatile, and inexpensive gift of nature.