Mother of Pearl and Shells have always been used to ornament the body and create jewelry. Since ancient times, various shells have been used to craft cameos, which are engraved in the thickest part of the shell. Considered less valuable than cameos crafted from agate, these works are referred to as shell cameos.
Nacre, Mother of All Pearls
The term "mother-of-pearl" is a poetic way of referring to this nacreous secretion of a mollusk. It is composed of the same material as the pearls it produces: nacre and conchioline, a type of organic substance.
Art nouveau jewelry made abundant use of the lustrous nacre with its iridescent hues, which range from light to dark.
VARYING COLORS FROM VARYING MOLLUSK
Depending on the mollusk producing the nacre, colors range from white and storm gray to steel blue, which comes from pearl-producing oysters. Fresh-water mollusks produce a milky-while nacre (used for buttons, for example).
More opaque, white nacre from the Indian Ocean and rosy-white Caribbean conch (Strombus gigas) nacre are used to make shell cameos.
The most ancient articles of jewelry fashioned were shells that were pierced and hung from a cord. Such ornaments have been found in Paleolithic tombs dated to 28,000 BC. A collar of fossilized shells mounted with long beads and pendants was excavated in Moravia in the Czech Republic. This prehistoric piece of jewelry is evidence of the timeless urge to convert shells found on the shore into necklaces and bracelets.
In Polynesia, a gift of fresh flower garlands and long shell necklaces often welcomes new visitors.
Shells were also sometimes used for less peaceful ends. The Dayak tribe in Borneo used the heart of the giant shellfish Tridacno gigas to craft bracelets that served both as ornaments and weapons. Worn on the right arm only by the men of the tribe, these heavy, viciously sharp bracelets could deal fatal blows to an enemy.
In Africa, the heaviest shells were shaped into red angles with rounded corners, then pierced and strung into long necklaces and often worn in multiple strands.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF SHELL
Cowries shells are a special case. These pretty shellfish seem to encompass all manner of primordial memories in the hollows of their shells, whose shape suggests the form of female sexual organs. Through the ages, they have served as talismans and symbols of fertility and wealth and have been used as currency or as material for ornaments and necklaces. They can be found in Tibet, Mali, Kenya, and Malaysia.
CARE AND MAINTENANCE
You can clean shells with soap and water. They can also be washed in a mixture of liquid soap and baking soda.