Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Mother Of Pearl - Opal Of The Sea

Mother of pearl is the iridescent substance called nacre, found on the inside of some mollusks. The word nacre comes from the Arab word naqqarah which means shell. It has been used for ornament, decoration and jewelry since 3000 B.C.E. Tombs have been discovered on the sites of ancient Mesopotamia in the Middle East that contained items made of mother of pearl. In some ancient cultures it was valued more than pearls. Before the 19th century, Japanese shell divers would discard any pearls found in the oysters they got, and keep the shell.

Ancient China also used mother of pearl for decorative inlay for various objects and jewelry. The Chinese powdered it and used it in medicines and prescribed it to lower blood pressure, as a cure for dizziness and as a heart medication. Native populations of South and North America also used mother of pearl for decoration and medicine.

In the Middle Ages in Europe, the main source of mother of pearl was the Persian Gulf. By the 16th century, this source had been depleted due to the huge demand. New sources were found in the Pacific. Areas in the Pacific such as The Solomon Islands and Tahiti were then plundered of their supply of nacre producing mollusks until the late 1880's when France gained control of Tahiti and restricted it. By the early 20th century the area was no longer a source of nacre.

In America, mother of pearl had been used mostly as an inlay for furniture until the 19th century saw it used for buttons. Muscatine, Iowa became the center of pearl button manufacture, and 'clammers' fished the Mississippi and other rivers for the nacre producing fresh water mussels. The buttons would be formed by punching out round pieces of the mussel shell. Billions of pearl buttons were manufactured, but they were very labor intensive to produce. By the beginning of World War II, the pearl button industry shifted to the production of plastic buttons as they were less expensive to make.

Mother of pearl continues to be used as decoration for many items such as furniture, musical instruments, and jewelry. Modern mother of pearl comes from fresh water and salt water sources in Europe, Asia, The United States, Japan and Asia. Mother of pearl that comes from abalone shell is some of the most valuable. With its iridescence and beauty, this opal of the sea is still in demand and highly valued.

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