Beneath the Shell: The Creative Versatility of Mother-of-Pearl

Discover the enchanting world of mother-of-pearl as we delve into the various techniques used by five of our favourites here at, including Austy Lee, Simone Jewels and Maison J’OR, among others. How do they harness the ethereal beauty of nacre in their creations? Let’s find out by studying inlay, carving and engraving…

Mother-of-pearl has captivated artisans and designers for centuries, from its luminous iridescence to its delicate yet durable nature. When this material is skilfully incorporated into contemporary creations, it adds a timeless charm and sophistication no matter whether it’s used in small doses or across much larger surfaces.

Models wearing Bijou.Q jewels in rose gold, ruby, mother-of-pearl and diamond from the Rose Collection

Mother-of-pearl, also known as nacre, is an iridescent substance that forms in the inner layer of the shells of certain molluscs, such as oysters, abalone, and pearl oysters, through alternating secretion layers of the protein conchiolin and mineral aragonite. These materials accumulate and gradually form thin layers, which reflect and refract light, giving mother-of-pearl its characteristic iridescence and lustre. This can display a range of colours such as white, pink, blue, and green. It’s interesting to note that there is a correlation between the size of the mother-of-pearl shell and what colour of nacre it produces. Pink hues are extremely rare, as they are most often formed in smaller, more brittle shells, whilst white mother-of-pearl is more commonly found in larger, stronger ones.

Even when this material is extracted from its watery home, the challenges associated with transforming it into wearable jewellery are significant. Various techniques are used to bring out its beauty, including the ones listed below.

Louis Vuitton Blossom necklace in gold, mother-of-pearl and diamond

Mother-of-Pearl Inlay

One of the most popular ways of incorporating mother-of-pearl is by inlaying cut sections into a design. It can be inlaid into metal settings or other materials to add decorative accents. This technique involves carefully fitting pieces of mother-of-pearl into recessed areas, creating a smooth and seamless surface using a suitable adhesive, such as epoxy resin or super glue. Inlay is a technique often used in the Japanese decorative art of Shibayama - a lacquer art that applies carved inlays made from shell, coral, tortoiseshell, and ivory into wooden panels.

The fantastical one-of-a-kind creations of Hong Kong-born artist jeweller Austy Lee are often inspired by this Japanese art form. The Hong Kong-born artist and jeweller established his eponymous brand in 2017, seeking to create pieces that embody what he calls “psychedelic art”. One of the ways he brings this mind-bending feel to his jewels is through mother-of-pearl inlay. “I like to apply a lot of mother-of-pearl and abalone shells into my pieces because of their iridescence, which is very psychedelic and hallucinating,” Austy says.

Austy Lee Hahatoko Akomeogi brooch in rose gold, Australian semi-black opal, mother-of-pearl, abalone shell and fancy yellow diamond from the Rainbow Prism collection

In his 4Nghês & Sun’ Fan Brooch, Austy replicates a traditional Japanese fan and its motifs, such as whirling clouds, using an inlay of white and black nacre to create a stormy-shimmering aesthetic. Here, mother-of-pearl is the main character to develop the illusion that clouds are about to erupt with lightning. However, in The Iznik’ Tessellation ring, nacre is a secondary character, using milky white mother-of-pearl to highlight the lavender undertones of the Burmese purple jade.

For Austy, using mother-of-pearl inlay in his work is a necessity, as it allows him to create endless colour patterns in his jewels; however, using this material so regularly comes at a cost. He adds: “As for the difficulties, generally, embedding mother-of-pearls takes a long time for the production process as well as the labour cost for such inlaying techniques.”

Austy Lee Holywater Flagon ring in rose gold with Sri-lankan sphene, blue sapphires, mother-of-pearl, fancy vivid yellow diamond and diamond from the Sanctus-Cubus collection

Cutting and Shaping Mother-of-Pearl

Another popular technique is creating customised shapes of nacre to fit a design. Mother-of-pearl can be cut and shaped using specialised tools, but the process requires precision and care due to its unpredictable nature. First, the desired shape must be marked on the stone using a pen, after which it can be cut by hand using a jeweller’s saw or a rotary tool with a diamond-coated blade. Once the basic outline has been cut, the desired shape can be finalised using files or sandpaper to refine the edges of the nacre cut-out. The final stage is to polish the surface of the formed piece to enhance its lustre and colour.

Model wearing Simone Jewels Dolmabahce Gates to Bosphorus pieces in white gold, tsavorite garnets, pearls, mother-of-pearl and diamond

For the last 18 years, Singapore-based high jewellery designer Simone Ng has been seamlessly incorporating cut pieces of mother-of-pearl into her designs. Simone is inspired by ancient Chinese wooden tables adorned with mother-of-pearl inlays – a hallmark of Peranakan furniture – and often uses nacre as the background material to emphasise the colour of large precious stones.

Making of the Simone Jewels Dolmabahce Gates to Bosphorus brooch in white gold, enamel, tsavorite garnet, tahitian pearl, blue sapphire, mother-of-Pearl and diamond

This is the idea behind her Dolmabahce collection, in which large tsavorites, sapphires and garnets are set in front of mother-of-pearl marquetry to further enhance their deep rich hues. She explains: “Traditional artistry typically begins with a meticulous sketch of the mother-of-pearl before delicately cutting it. The material's softness allows for the creation of intricate details with ease; however, the fact is that not every part of the shell we work with gives us that perfect shine. It's a bit of trial and error to get that ideal glow and sheen in just the right thickness. It's like a little experiment each time”.

Roman high jewellery brand Maison J’OR also utilises mother-of-pearl cut-outs and shapes in its designs. Driven by a desire to create pieces that are a melding of bold colours, interesting shapes and elegance, co-founders Attilio and Barbara Gelpi decided shortly after launching the brand over 20 years ago that nacre would be a key ingredient in their designs. "Each of our pieces, which were finished with mother-of-pearl, was inspired by the stone’s brightness and iridescent", says Filippo Gelpi, head of development at J'OR. The reason Maison J’OR creates mother-of-pearl-centric jewels is because of the variability and diversity of the material’s colouring, which is unique to each shell. Gelpi adds: "The only words I can use to describe its natural iridescence are imaginative, undefined and extremely seductive. It must be respected".

Katerina Perez presents Maison J’OR Jewels Gothica chocker necklace set with pink-lilac kunzite, iridescent grey mother-of-pearl

Carving and Engraving Mother-of-Pearl

A third commonly used technique is carving and engraving the gem to create a specific design pattern or illusion. Designers typically start by sketching a motif onto the surface of the nacre, ensuring that the pattern is well suited to the shape of the mother-of-pearl. It is then shaped using carving tools such as chisels, gouges, drills, and saws to remove thin layers from the surface, creating shallow grooves and lines according to the desired design. Once finished, the surface is then sanded and polished to enhance the lustre and shine.

Luxury jewellery brand Bijou.Q’s founder, M. Kerdi, enjoys including carved mother-of-pearl elements in many of his creations. After discovering his passion for design 25 years ago while working as a tailor, he launched his brand, Bijou.Q, in 2017 to bring that tailored feeling to the world of jewellery. Speaking to the brand, we were told that “before the carving process, the mother-of-pearl may need to be softened by soaking it in warm water or applying heat to make it more pliable and less prone to cracking during the carving process”. Despite these challenges, the brand continues to work with the gem due to its timeless allure and the fact that, despite its perceived delicacy, it is reasonably robust and can stand the test of time.

Bijou.Q Art Deco pendant, earring as well as Coccopelli Mother of Pearl pendants in rose gold, mother-of-pearl and diamond

And how can we possible forget jewellery designer Melanie Georgacopoulos! With a background in sculpture, Melanie began exploring working with pearls during her Master’s degree at the Royal College of Art in 2007 and hasn’t looked back since. She rose to international fame, leading to her longstanding collaboration with Japanese pearl jewellery brand Tasaki, which began in 2013. She tells us: “It was a natural evolution for me to start working with nacre as I have been working with pearls for so long”. After pushing the boundaries of what was possible to create with the pearl gem to new heights, she set her sights on reinventing the wheel with nacre: “I developed a technique in 2020 which I refer to as my 'embedded' technique, it involves carving the mother-of-pearl around diamonds or pearls so that it appears that these precious gemstones have been spontaneously pushed into the nacre”. And that’s exactly what she did.

Her embedded technique creates the illusion of soft, plush mother-of-pearl cushions gently indented with the weight of large diamonds and pearls that sit on its surface. “It was certainly a challenge to create the pillow-like texture”, says Melanie, who spent years developing this specific form of carving and engraving. “I think there is something poetic about visually reuniting the pearl to the oyster it came from, which is why I pair nacre with pearls in many of my pieces”.

Melanie Georgacopoulos Diamond & Pearl Embedded bangle old with white mother-of-pearl, pear shaped diamonds and white natural pearls

As you can see, there are a variety of ways and techniques that mother-of-pearl can be incorporated into a jewellery design. Whether it’s as a small detail to highlight the natural shimmer of a stone or as the main feature, a piece of nacre jewellery will go a long way in your jewellery box for generations to come. The selection below is but a drop in the ocean of mother-of-pearl jewels available for you to purchase. Which one will you choose?

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