What is Mother of Pearl? Beautiful Mother of Pearl

what is mother of pearl

Mother of pearl with its luminous color and beautiful sheen is a mesmerizing material which looks unlike any other gemstone. It adds great interest to many jewelry pieces and lends them a one-of-a-kind, show stopper appeal.

But what is mother of pearl and is it different from pearls?

It’s actually a fascinating material and is formed very differently from any other gemstone or precious metal which is created in dark rocks under great pressure. It forms inside the cosy insides of mollusk shells in the beautiful ocean as a protection for the precious contents inside the shell.

In this article we aim to cover everything you may want to know about this beautiful material which has been admired from ancient cultures right through to the present day.

What is mother of pearl - shell containing mother of pearl lining and pearls
Pearls inside a shell showing nacre (mother of pearl) lining. Credit: Depositphotos

What is Mother of Pearl?

What is known as Mother of pearl is the inner lining that is formed in certain types of mollusk shells like pearl oysters – its correct name being called “nacre”. This inner nacre coating of the shell has a irridescent, luminous sheen which seems to contain so many colours.

Its wonderful appearance just adds to the mystery and unique qualities of this organic substance.

Because the appearance of the nacre resembles real pearls, as well as being formed in the same shells that produce pearls, and also having similar names, it is very easy to confuse the two – mother of pearl and pearl – and there is a popular belief that they are one and the same thing, which they aren’t.

Mother of Pearl: How Is It Formed?

Certain mollusks such as pearl oysters, abalone or freshwater mussels secrete a unique material inside their shell to protect them, formed in thin layers, called nacre. These very hard, very thin and beautifully smooth layers form a formidable protections for the precious sea creature inside the shell.

It is very beautiful to look at, feels smooth and contains a multitude of colors – hence is perfect for adorning jewelry and artwork.

We wonder if the protective qualities of the nacre layer, gives this material the wonderful name of mother of pearl. It’s no surprise then, that one of the meanings given to the qualities of mother of pearl is about protecting and soothing tension and anxiety.

Properties of Mother Of Pearl

The shell lining, called nacre, is a calcium carbonate material called aragonite which forms in hexagonal-shaped plates in the inner shell. Aragonite crystals are naturally forming calcium carbonate and these plates of aragonite are woven together with a type of protein called conchiolin.

Because of the thin plates of nacre, it creates an amazing arrays of colors. Thus mother of pearl jewelry is very beautiful to look at and compliments most skin tones and outfits.

The natural color of mother of pearl looks elegant and expensive and will go with anything.

How is Mother of Pearl Different from Pearls?

It’s easy to think that mother of pearl and pearls are the same thing but, whist both made inside types of mollusks and contain the same material, they are formed in different ways.

Mother of pearl is the inner layer of mollusk shells, whilst pearls are spherical. In a pearl the nacre layers are laid down around foreign irritants inside the shell, such as a grain of sand, hence forming a sphere.

Mother of pearl, on the other hand is made by the laying down of flat aragonite platelets on the inner lining of the shell and is therefore flat.

How is Mother of Pearl Different from Gemstone Jewelry

Furthermore, gems are created deep inside the earth in the rocks with the build up of crystals. After extraction, the gems are cut and polished to the desired shape to set in jewelry.

Mother of pearl appearance is very different from a gemstone as it forms a layer with a luminous, milky, slightly multi-colored appearance.

Therefore it is used as a flat, visually attractive backing, inlay or highlight in pieces or jewelry, . In a collection of mother of pearl jewelry or objects, every single piece will look different.

Appearance and Iridescence

Like opal, the iridescence of mother of pearl is quite exquisite and no two pieces in a collection are alike.

This appearance looks quite stunning on the dial of a watch as you will see different colors as you hold your watch at different angles.

It has also been compared loosely to moonstone, the birthstone for June, due to its milky hues.

History of Use of Mother of Pearl

Because of the wonderful colors of nacre lined shells, mother of pearl has been revered by many cultures for its beauty and used for centuries in artwork and jewels, from as far back a the Shang and Ming dynasties in China and also in Ancient Egypt. The ancient Egyptians used in in many items of dress and their artwork and decor.

In times past mother of pearl was popularly used in clothing as buttons or buckles on belts, artefacts, as well as in pendants and rings.

Different Uses of Mother of Pearl

mother of pearl tiles
Closeup photo of Mother of pearl mosaic tiles. Credit: Depositphotos

Used in clothing – such as buttons and buckles – it gives an expensive finish to a garment.

Mother of pearl is popularly used on watch faces for the lovely sheen it gives when held at different angles.

Due to the way it is formed, in layers, mother of pearl has also been used in home décor, for instance to line the inner surface of dishes and trinkets.

It looks very attractive in a marquetry effect on the outer coating of jewelry boxes.

A mother of pearl inlay has also been inset musical instruments, like the bridge of a guitar or buttons of an instrument. It’s also been used in the handles of firearms and on knives.

All in all it looks fantastic set in jewelry and its beauty is widely acknowledged. From a showpiece pendant, perfect for cocktail parties, to a dainty inlay behind some openwork silver, mother of pearl adds a unique quality to a piece of jewelry in place of or alongside other gemstone jewelry.

Mother of pearl makes a perfect gift for those who are drawn to or love the ocean and the wonder of life that takes place in the seas around the world.

Bering watch with mother of pearl dial
Bering Ladies Watch with Mother of Pearl Dial – Carathea

How To Tell If Mother Of Pearl Is Real?

One way to tell if mother of pearl is real is, as with pearls, if it feels rough or gritty (many people use their teeth to detect this which we don’t recommend, especially on the soft mother of pearl as it’s likely to scratch the surface) then it could well be real. Your jeweller should be able to tell you if the substance is real or not.


abalone or paua shell
Abalone. Credit: Despositphoto

Abalone (otherwise known as paua shell), a type of marine snail, also form nacre (mother of pearl) inside its “home”, only the colors produced from abalone resemble the rich black opal color, with blue and purple. This contrasts beautifully with the white shimmering mother of pearl found in other types of sea creatures.

Value of Mother of Pearl Jewelry vs Pearl Jewelry

Depending on the rarity of where the pearls were extracted, their color and the size, you can find mother of pearl can often be a cheaper alternative to pearl jewelry, even cheaper cultured pearls. Mother of pearl from rarer shells or those that are laborious to extract from the ocean will obviously be more expensive than others.

Not every shell will house a pearl, whereas all nacre-producing mollusks will form a inner lining inside the shell.

Mother Of Pearl Meaning

As with other gemstones people are often interested in what is Mother of pearl’s meaning? It is said to protect and soothe tensions and anxiety and heal by helping to restore peace of mind. Some believe mother of pearl promotes good fortune and abundance.

The sea has always been associated with emotions and many of us feel drawn to the ocean to contemplate life. Mother of pearl jewelry seems to capture this mysterious part of our world and is soothing and calming just to look at it.

Can you wear Mother of Pearl everyday?

As long as care is taken with Mother of pearl, using the guidelines above, you can confidently wear mother of pearl jewelry in much the same way that you can wear pearl or other gems.

Proper Care Of Mother Of Pearl

As the material is laid down in platelets of hexagonal shape, these can be easily flaked, cracked or split so good care is needed when handling and, in particular, cleaning mother of pearl.

As with pearls we don’t recommend leaving pearls in direct sunlight or allowing any perfumes/toiletries to come in contact with the item.

Never use jewelry cleaning dip or even water on mother of pearl but clean with a soft jewelry cleaning cloth, or dry microfiber cloth, taking care not to rub the surface.

Don’t store your mother of pearl jewelry in an area of high humidity as this may damage the beauty of this material. Also wrap your mother of pearl jewelry carefully when you’re not wearing it and store it away from other jewelry, or keep it in its own box.

Whilst nacre is very hard, the thin plates of Mother of pearl only scores 3.5 on the Mohs scale of hardness and is therefore considered very soft and could be easily scratched. Care needs to be taken with mother of pearl rings and bracelets in particular due to the heavily wear they encounter on a day to day basis.

To Sum Up …

In looking into what is Mother of pearl we can begin to appreciate what is special material it is. Like pearls, it differs from other gemstones in it’s creation and appearance and we are delighted to shine a jewelry spotlight on this fabulous material.

In the depths of the ocean, inside the rather ugly-looking shell creature, a rather beautiful process is taking place inside the shell. Can you image the first time someone opened a pearl oyster and saw the beauty hidden inside?

The beautiful colours captured in this wonderfully smooth, iridescent material is quite something to look at and very elegant when used in jewelry and watches with is white sheen. Abalone shells mother of pearl creates a deep black, purple hue.

The result is a material that produces show-stopping jewelry and necklaces and eye-catching creations and will make a worthy addition to your pearl jewelry pieces.

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