M is for Mother-of-Pearl
In the sixth century, its iridescent nuances were already enlivening the mosaics at Ravenna’s Basilica of Saint Apollonia. Fragile and long inimitable, mother-of-pearl, also known as nacre, was used as a precious material to decorate cabinets of curiosities, jewelry and even garments.
Georges Bastard (1881-1939), Les Camélias, folding fan in changing goldfish mother-of-pearl, dyed mauve, decorated with camellias and hearts with gold highlights, original Havana ribbon, h 21.5 cm/8.47 in. Paris, Drouot, March 30, 2021. Coutau-Bégarie OVV
Mother-of-pearl is a durable, resilient material that mollusks secrete on the inner surface of their shells to protect them from cracking. Although produced by all gastropods and bivalves, it is not equally bright in all species. The most precious examples come from 16 species found mostly in the Pacific, including the pearl oyster, burgaudine, haliotis and trochus. Demand for their shells is so high that they are protected by the Washington Convention. Some beautiful mother-of-pearl is also found in eastern seas and even in freshwater. In the Middle Ages and modern times, supplying Europe with this fragile, expensive material accessible only in small amounts was as challenging as working with it.
The shell must be polished to expose the nacre before it is painstakingly cut with a saw into veneer sheets…
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