Back to Basics: What is Mother of Pearl?

June 17, 2015 by Melissa

Many people would recognize mother of pearl when they saw it, but how many of us actually know what mother of pearl is, where it comes from or how it is made? Or, more specifically, how many know the difference between the mother of pearl and a pearl?

What is Mother of Pearl?

What is mother of pearl? How is it different from a pearl gemstone?
What is mother of pearl? How is it different from a pearl gemstone? Image Source: The Spruce

Unsurprisingly, pearls and mother of pearl are made of the same substance: nacre, an iridescent material composed of calcium carbonate.

Nacre is created by mollusks to protect their soft interior tissue. The difference between pearls and mother of pearl is placement. Mother of pearl is created on the inner linings of a shell.

A pearl, on the other hand, is created when a foreign object enters the shell and the mollusk encases the foreign object in order to protect itself. The material used to create the encasement is the same nacre, or mother of pearl, the material discussed above.

The end result of this foreign object being encased in nacre is a round-shaped pearl, whereas mother of pearl takes the shape of the shell that it lines.

How Does Mother of Pearl Get Its Iridescent Appearance?

Mother of Pearl Veneer Decor for Autos
Mother of Pearl Veneer Decor for Autos. Image Source: Aqua Blue Maui

Have you wondered about the source of mother of pearl’s iridescent appearance? The answer is in the nacre material itself, which is secreted by the epithelial cells. The epithelial cells secrete thin platelets, or building blocks, of nacre.

Thin platelets of calcium carbonate secreted by the mollusk to create the mother of pearl inside the shell have a width which matches that of many light waves. This is what gives it the beauty which makes it so sought after in the creation of everything from pearl jewelry to watches to furniture.

The Beautiful Essence of Mother of Pearl Jewelry

Mother-of-Pearl Necklace
Mother-of-Pearl Necklace. Image Source: Art Institute Shop

When you hear the term mother of pearl jewelry, this is not in reference to the nacre that coats the outside of the gemstones. Instead, it refers to the nacre that can be found coating the inside layer of the shell of the mollusk.

When mother of pearl is set in metals and other jewelry pieces, only a thin layer of the sediment, much like that of a boulder opal. Jewelers can then cut or carve the substance into various shapes.

This allows awesome, unique jewelry pieces to be created that are all one-of-a-kind in their own rights.

Pearl Jewelry VS Mother of Pearl Jewelry

Check out how gorgeous this Men's Mother of Pearl Wedding Band looks with all it's sparkle, shine and luster.
Check out how gorgeous this Men’s Mother of Pearl Wedding Band looks with all it’s sparkle, shine and luster. Image Source: Amazon

Both pearl and mother of pearl jewelry fall under the category of organic jewelry.  These are pieces made with gems that originate from living organisms, plants or creatures. However, there are some major differences between the two.

Mother of pearl jewelry looks very different from pearl jewelry in various ways. Jewelry pieces created using mother of pearl are generally large-sized focal pieces, because they tend to take up the entire interior of the mollusk shells. They are almost always placed in fine jewelry settings.

Jewelry made with pearls are generally made by drilling wholes in the gemstones, and stringing them together, rather than setting them. And, since pearls tend to only grow to certain sizes, these jewelry pieces are usually smaller, and contain rounded, thick gems. The nacre is much thicker than mother of pearl, which has a very thin layer of nacre.

How to Test for Mother of Pearl Authenticity

Pearl Tooth Test
Pearl Tooth Test. Image Source: Alina Blaga

Wondering whether or not your mother of pearl jewelry is real of fake? Well, you can use the pearl tooth test to check for authenticity. Simply tap the gem against your teeth. If it’s plastic, the bead will create a muted sound, whereas the real deal will “click” instead.

Click here to learn more about the pearl tooth test.

In most cases, alloys are used to make jewelry pieces. Many people have allergic reactions to copper and nickel that can lead to chemical reactions. This tends to cause the jewelry to fade and/or change colors.

Pearls are 100% hypoallergenic gemstones. Therefore, it’s very rare for a person to suffer an allergic reaction to mother or pearl and pearl jewelry.