Mother Pearl

11 years ago

Mother Pearl
Mother Pearl

Pearls have long been a sought after gemstone and like all other precious stones they are judged for specific qualities they possess which in the case of a pearl is their luster, size, surface quality, iridescence and orientation. The luster is determined by the amount of reflection, refraction and diffraction of light from the translucent onion layers as the pearl is built up; iridescence is determined by how much these “onion” layers overlap each other which makes the rays of light break up as they try to pass through them.

Pearls are very valuable and have been farmed for thousands of years with much of the value being ascribed to the enormous amount of human labor required and not to mention the danger inherent in bringing them to shore – pearl’s had to be found by divers going to the sea bed and individually hunting for them.

Naturally formed pearls come from all mollusks that use the process of creating a pearl to seal off an intruding piece of matter such as a grain of sand (though this is rare in practice as it much more likely to be foreign organic matter or parasites). This is part of the mollusks natural defense mechanism and operates involuntarily. Cultured pearls are made by the intervention of man and are created essentially as part of a production process which deliberately introduces the foreign body around which the pearl will be formed.

The mollusk deposits a mineral, aragonite and sometimes with a mixture of calcite around the foreign body and the entire concretion is held together by a glue-like substance known as conchiolin. This is built up and forms a layered structure which seals off the foreign intruder from the body of the animal and the combination of aragonite and conchiolin is known as “nacre” which in turn makes up “mother of pearl”.

Natural pearls are almost made entirely of conchiolin and calcium carbonate; they come in a variety of shapes and sizes with completely round pearls being a rarity in nature. Cultured pearls are far more common and they are usually “pre-formed” with a bead inserted into the mollusk which they places a thin shell of nacre around the foreign object and therefore is not completely made up of pearl material. Natural pearls are also capable of being dyed different colors whereas natural pearls are a light, pearly white color.

For cultured pearls which are completely organic in that there is no bead around which the mollusks lays a shell of nacre, it requires an X-ray to differentiate it from a natural pearl. A cultured pearl will not show the concentric spheres of a naturally occurring pearl and is usually also not completely solid to the core.

There is also a further distinction to be made between saltwater and freshwater pearls, the former being the more sought after of the two. They do look very alike but freshwater pearls originate from the Unionidae family of freshwater mussels which inhabit lakes and rivers and are distributed widely geographically in both hot and cold climates. Saltwater pearls originate from the Pteridae family of oysters which are ocean dwellers and today are typically raised in protected lagoons and atolls in warm tropical climates.

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Can you recommend a good, permanent green dye for bone and/or mother or pearl beads and buttons?

I am looking for something easy and relatively safe. I have used acid dyes for wool and silk, and fiber-reactive dyes for plant fibers. I can find the sizes and shapes I want, but not the color.

I would guess that it is not at all difficult to do. Bone, like eggshell, is of course largely composed of calcium, with some proteins. An easy thing to try would be Easter egg dye. At this season you will find the special Easter egg coloring kits in stores, but the food coloring available in little bottles (often in small boxed sets of four colors) on the baking aisle in the grocery store is the same kind of dye. To dye eggshells, you soak them in water mixed with vinegar and food coloring. Hotter water works better than cooler water; use less water for more intense colors.

Jacquard recommends the use of their Wood & Reed dye on bone. (“All you need is a container large enough to hold your material, hot water, and Jacquard Wood and Reed dye.”) I believe that this dye is of the class called Basic dye; it should not be used in your kitchen, should not be used in any food-use container, and should be used with care to avoid any skin exposure to the dye or any breathing of the dye powder. All dyes other than food coloring should be used with similar precautions and care, of course, but I feel that it is particularly important to avoid direct exposure to basic dyes. Bone will be far easier to dye than acrylic, but the page “Dyeing Acrylic with Basic Dye” includes a discussion of this type of dye. (Here is a direct link to purchase Jacquard Wood & Reed Dye at

Some very old recipes for the natural dyeing of bone and other materials appear in a historical document called the Allerley Mackel, which has been translated by Drea Leed; it says, “Any wood, bone, or horn you want to dye must lie for half a day in alum water, and then be allowed once more to dry. Then it should be dyed as follows”, followed by recipes involving copper verdigris, brazilwood (an expensive natural dye), apple tree bark, or nut galls. For example: “To dye yellow: Take the bark of apple trees, scrape the outer rough skin from it, keep the middle layer and cut it into small pieces. Pour water thereon, lay the wood, bone or horn therein, also put alum therein and let it boil well together.” Alum is a commonly used mordant for natural dyes, serving to attach them more permanently to the material being dyed.

All dyed items must be rinsed with cool water until no more dye comes out into the rinse water, or else coated when dry with a clear shellac or polyurethane coating, to prevent dye rub-off. Also note that you will find it very difficult to dye an item on a later occasion to exactly match an item dyed earlier; all matching items should be dyed at the same time, in the same dyebath.

Jess David Mother-of-Pearl Cleopatra 19 Necklace

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