Unlike its flashier progeny, mother of pearl is more than an accessory to a favorite pastel sweater set. As masculine as the grips on Wyatt Earp’s spinning six-shooters, and as feminine as the posy holder dangling from Queen Victoria’s tiniest finger, mother of pearl’s subtle elegance was valued for adornments and accouterments, and lent weight, permanence and beauty to the everyday objects now molded out of disposable plastics.
The luminescent inner lining of seashells, mother of pearl looks as delicate as an ebbing spot of sunlight on the surface of the ocean. But fragile it is not. Mother of pearl is strong without being brittle and according to physics professor Pupa Gilbert, “You can go over it with a truck and not break it.” Nacre, the substance secreted by mollusks to create both pearls and mother of pearl, is mostly humble calcium carbonate — the stuff of eggshells and antacid tablets. Mother of pearl’s incredible resilience comes from thin layers of an organic lubricating substance, a molecular mortar to the bricks of calcium that redistributes force and makes nacre much, much stronger than the sum of its parts. As a natural material, mother of pearl has an eternal quality that modern science strives towards, and consumer plastics cannot even begin to replicate.
Mother of pearl, imported to Victorian England from the Pacific and Indian oceans in great mahogany crates, would be unpacked, inspected for quality, and auctioned to the over two thousand factories and artisans who would polish, cut and bevel the shells into the fineries that distinguished the Victorian gentleman or woman. Mother of pearl, cut as peonies were inlayed into tea tables, formed into gentlemen’s knives, or carved into elaborate filigree for brooches, as well as the aforementioned posy holders — miniature vases fitted with fragrant bouquets that ladies of Victoria’s era carried as practical yet decorative charms to ward off the smells of a time before widespread bathing.
THE WILD, PEARLY WEST
During this same period, mother of pearl was beloved by the gentlemen outlaws of the wild American frontier. Wyatt Earp, the legendary lawman of the West, would likely have maintained that glorious mustache with a straight razor set into a mother of pearl handle. And when he reached into his holster, it would be the cool iridescent shell that would greet his palm. Highwayman Bob Dalton was said to have special-ordered a set of pistols with mother of pearl grips for a spectacular double bank heist in his hometown of Coffeyville, Kansas in 1892. Despite being handsomely appointed, the robbery ended in disaster when vigilante townspeople killed Dalton and his entire gang.
Mother of pearl’s less nefarious incarnation as buttons is the classic tale of beauty and quality falling victim to ever-cheaper industrial production. In the mid-nineteenth century, from the moment the box of shells arrived at the factory floor to the moment when a finely engraved, skillfully shanked button was tacked onto a piece of bright blue card, the precious item would have passed through no less then eight specialized pairs of hands (albeit some of them uncomfortably young and small).
In the late 1800s, American mother of pearl buttons accounted for nearly half of the total world output of button manufacture, sourced from China, Australia, Ceylon, and the South Seas, as well as abalone from California and freshwater shells from the Mississippi. They were carved into elegant buttons that were beautiful and cherished, reflecting a respect for things that came before two-thirds of the world’s buttons were produced in a single city in China, and one’s plastic cuff buttons cracked in half before a fine shirt wore out.
By the 1960s, B. Schwanda & Sons of New York, one of the leading pearl-button firms in America, was caught squarely in the crosshairs of the cheap, plastic future. The directors of the company remained loyal to the beauty and quality of pearl buttons, and refused to succumb to the economic pressures driving other button makers to turn to plastic. As a result, the company went bankrupt and liquidated in 1969, and we marched another step forward to the fate of our own making.