Vintage View: The source and maintenance of mother-of-pearl

French Brisé fan in carvedmother-of-pearl. Late 19thcentury.

Sounds as exciting as slurry... “A nacreous, iridescent material deposited on the inside of a shell”. 

This natural nacre is mother-of-pearl, a prized and fascinating ingredient in antique furniture and smalls. Nacre is the same material laid down on a foreign body — like a piece of grit in a mollusc that makes a pearl and it has the same magical, light-splitting lustre.

The nacre, surrounding and protecting the squashy inhabitant of the shell, is deposited in layers in pearl oysters and abalone shells.

These tough layers can be detached and used for a variety of decorative techniques, from the entire veneering of small objects like tea caddies and buttons, to delicate applications of inlay in an array of shimmering, fairytale shadings. Porous and largely composed of calcium carbonate, it can also carry a tint, making it the semi-precious treasure of jewelers in the sinuous era of Art Nouveau.

The Victorians, confined in gloomy interiors and shrouded by heavy materials with feeble winter light, adored the exotic allure of mother-of-pearl.

Most of the pieces you will come across will be high Victorian in flavour. The glint of fragile rose pink to ashes of mauve, with its striations of three dimensional white, were a perfect foil for black lacquered furniture, ebony and a 19th century favourite — paper mache.

Mother-of-pearl was tough enough to be engraved, the cuts adding texture and even greater gem- like colour play. Silver cutlery like fruit knives and forks were often set into mother-of-pearl handles that with their iridescent magiclooked wonderful ignited by the shifting dance of candlelight.

Chinese and French brisé fans (made up of rigid laced up sticks) worked with a tiny saw and made entirely of fine mother-of-pearl are a wonder to behold and extremely delicate. Real mother-of-pearl is hard, cold, and old dry thin flakes are quite easy to snap. To distinguish mother-of-pearl from plastic, touch it to your face —it should feel cold. Next, looking at it closely, look for random ridges, raised dimples and dark shadings (easier to determine on the reverse if you have the chance).

There should be no regular figuring or deep transparency. Chips of mother-of-pearl are often misplaced, and it can break if abused. Scratches cannot be polished out, but the cleaner the piece, the less noticeable the scuffs.

You can still buy abalone shell in various shadings from most good craft shops, or retrieve pieces of genuine mother-of-pearl from damaged old items not worthy of saving. Ensure as close a colour match as possible. Use clear glue like UHU for cheap repairs on less valuable pieces. Mild soap and water, a chamois or even a rub with your finger should shift most dirt, and restore that immortal gloss.

Use a hemmed, soft cloth as snagging an edge of inlay can so easily dislodge wafers of mother-of-pearl from failing elderly glue. A cotton bud dipped in soapy water and pinched out between thumb and forefinger is ideal for fine detail. Dry immediately.

The oils in your skin add shine, so discreetly glance the mother-of-pearl off the tip of your nose. Don’t blame me if your family discover you stabbing your beak on the inlaid china cabinet.

While you’re down there humiliating yourself, spit will tackle more stubborn dirt. Don’t grip any small or single piece of mother-of-pearl too tightly or it may crack under the pressure.

Never immerse cutlery with bone or mother-of-pearl handles in hot water. Just wipe the metal clean. If you regularly put your decorous antique ware in the dishwasher, well, I’m not quite sure this is the column for you.

Keep your pieces out of direct sunlight as they are UV reactive and will become brittle and yellow, abandoned in a south facing window.


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