Mankind has been using mother-of-pearl since the dawn of time (the late Palaeolithic era). Primitive peoples were fascinated by the beauty of its iridescent shimmer, which is imparted to it by the light spectrum. They used it primarily as a decorative stone for jewellery-making, whereby the shells would be pierced with holes and strung. Due to its outstanding strength, mother-of-pearl was also used to craft tools, containers and even currency tokens. For example, tools and jewellery made of mother-of-pearl were found among the Sumerian royal treasures of Mesopotamia (3000 BC).
Very early on, some peoples used mother-of-pearl either as part of rituals or ceremonies or for therapeutic or cosmetic purposes. For example, the Maya (500 BC) would replace any missing teeth with carved shell pieces for funeral rites, and the Aztecs (1200 AD) used mother-of-pearl to heal sunburned skin. 2000 years ago in China, syrups were made from mother-of-pearl powder to treat babies. The Chinese Empresses of the Qing Dynasty (as far back as 1644) applied it neat to the skin to restore its glow, or as a facial ointment to diminish or smooth out their wrinkles.
It is not known how old the symbolism ascribed to mother-of-pearl is, but it’s the stuff of legend: hidden treasure.
From the Middle Ages onwards, mother-of-pearl took on religious symbolism among Christians, and was associated with the Virgin Mary owing to its purity and white hue.
Certain large shells like that of Tridacna gigas were, and still are to this day, used as vessels for holy water in Catholic baptism ceremonies. This led to their being referred to in French as bénitiers (“baptismal fonts”). According to some, the holy water appeared to have a softer, more milky appearance against the pearlized bottom of the clamshell font. Magnificent giant clamshell baptismal fonts can be found in some churches, such as the Saint-Sulpice in Paris. In the Solomon Islands (Archipelago of Oceania), the giant clamshell was the perfect example of a shell representing fortune. For the Yaquis Indians of Mexico (from the 16th century onwards), necklaces made of shells had a spiritual function: they provided protection against evil forces. In Hinduism, the Panchajanya conch was one of the attributes of the goddess Vishnu. It represented the creation of the world, and of the Primordial Ocean. In Buddhism, the conch was associated with the voice and teachings of Buddha.
The glory days of mother-of-pearl came after Elisabeth 1, Queen of England, named it as such. In so doing she referred to the process by which pearls are formed, and bestowed maternal symbolism upon it. Her Majesty had a passion for pearls, and had precious ornaments and exceptional pieces of jewellery crafted from mother-of-pearl.
These days, mother-of-pearl is commonly used as a semi-precious stone in watchmaking and luxury jewellery. Mother-of-pearl symbolises protective motherly love and feminine gentleness. The virtue of bringing security and wellbeing is also ascribed to mother-of-pearl. Mother-of-pearl gifts are given to mark 42 years of marriage: the mother-of-pearl wedding anniversary.