Jewellers' Network

Mabé Pearls and Shell

By Arthur Thomas

Most texts refer to the process involved in creating mabé pearls as being a relatively recent innovation. However the concept of creating a coating of nacre on a foreign body by inserting it between the mantle of a mollusc and its shell is of great antiquity.

Many centuries have passed since monks in China first began creating nacre coated images of the Buddha.

From left to right: Mabé clasp, Carved shell, Mabé in situ in Pinctada maxima

The mollusc involved was usually the big unio or fresh-water mussel. The monks collected the mussels and kept them in bowls while they waited for them to gape. As soon as a shell opened they inserted a small wooden wedge to prevent it closing while they worked on it. A sliver of bamboo was then employed to ease the mantle of the creature away from its shell while they inserted a small lead image of Buddha into the opening they had created.

The mussels were then returned to the river or lake and left in peace for several years before they were lifted to harvest the nacre coated images.

Pteria penguin, Pteria sterna, Pinctada margaritaferia

The same basic process is used to produce modern mabé pearls but the lead images of Buddha are replaced by plastic hemispheres. While Unio mussels are still employed for generating substantial quantities of mabé pearls the mabé created in salt-water molluscs are generally regarded as more desirable because of their higher lustre. The species most frequently used for mabé culture are Pteria penguin, Pteria sterna and Pinctada maxima. In this respect the fact that Pteria penguin, or the black-winged pearl oyster is also known as the Mabé oyster may lead to some confusion.

Larger pieces and interesting shapes are often created by incorporating some of the mother of pearl shell surrounding the mabé.

Also known as blister pearls, mabé pearls are most frequently hemi-spherical in shape. They are emplaced and grow attached to the inner shell of a mollusc where they build up layers of pearly nacre over a period that may range from one to five years. After harvesting they are cut from the shell, the plastic hemisphere is removed, the resulting hollow is filled with resin and sealed with a disc of mother-of pearl.


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