Mother of pearl, also referred to as nacre, is an iridescent coating found on the inside of certain mollusks. Mollusks found in bodies of salt and fresh water such as the Gulf of Mexico, Gulf of Panama and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef produce mother of pearl by secreting fine proteins within the shells. Designing jewellery with this hydrated gemstone, which entails cutting, inlaying or polishing, requires different care as well as tools than when working with other media.
Polishing Mother of Pearl with Sandpaper
Most jewellery designers polish mother of pearl with fine sandpaper. Although 1,000-grit sandpaper is best for polishing, a minimum of 600 grit also works well. The sandpaper must also be the wet and dry type. As you dab the mother of pearl with water, sand it and wipe away the water and dust with a clean soft cloth. Repeat the procedure until the mother of pearl is polished, generally showing a glossy white or iridescent finish. It is very important to wear a protective mask and eyewear when sanding. The residue from sanding mother of pearl is harmful.
Jewellers also use polishing compounds such as French chalk. The lubricating properties produce a high lustre and sheen when used for polishing. French chalk, also referred to as talc stone, soapstone or steatite, is finely powdered talc.
Jewellers often use a jeweller’s saw to cut mother of pearl designs. A piece of wood scrap is often used to support the shell blank. The wood is positioned underneath the mother of pearl and held with clamps onto the work surface. The saw cuts out the shape of the jewellery design. Other tools such as drills and burrs are also used for cutting.
Inlaying Mother of Pearl
Jewellery designers often use inlay techniques to create elaborate pieces such as wood-laden pendants. The design combination of wood and mother of pearl produces a rich contrast. A designer generally uses the flat side of the mother of pearl’s shell or sands the shell flat. After routing out the wood, the designer will inlay the cut mother of pearl pieces and arrange the design within the hollowed wood, using epoxy cement to secure it in place.
Mother of Pearl and Adhesive
Creating your jewellery design with mother of pearl generally entails other media such as metal. Although most artists use epoxy cement, choose a brand that has a two-part epoxy cement ratio. When it dries, the cement cures the water clear. Do not use any brand that cures the water in an amber tone, which will change your jewellery design. The product is generally available at rock or craft supply stores.
Care and Maintenance
Mother of pearl is categorised as a hydrated gemstone. Keep the jewellery in a cool place, free of humidity, extreme heat or direct sunlight. The mother of pearl surface has a tendency to crack and becomes brittle once it dries out. Every several weeks, wipe the jewellery with a damp cloth to prevent the surface from drying.
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