When it comes to Southwestern American Indian jewelry, sterling silver is king. And why wouldn’t it be? It plays well with all gemstones and provides a perfect home for gorgeous blue and green turquoise. However, if your tastes run towards something other than turquoise and your eyes are drawn to something iridescent, then we are talking about the marvelous mother of pearl and abalone shell. Often paired with jet, coral, lapis lazuli, or spiny oyster, the iridescent colors of mother of pearl and abalone shell are alluring and eye-catching to be sure. In this post, we will dive a little deeper into these jewelry materials to find out what makes them so special.
Often the names, mother of pearl and abalone, are used interchangeably. That’s not wrong, but can sometimes be deceiving. Mother of pearl refers to the coating of the inside of a mollusk shell when a pearl is created. This is also called the nacre and in many other mollusks can look like porcelain, but in mother of pearl has the iridescent multi-colored affect we know and love. This nacre is both hard and soft enough that it can be carved into cabochons to put into jewelry settings. Mother of pearl is often used as accent pieces on different instruments like harmonicas and guitars. It is important to note that mother of pearl is not pearl and therefore more affordable, but still gorgeous and goes well with many other gemstones.
Abalone is the gastropod that lives in a shell. Abalone shell is shaped a bit like an ear and also has a nacre that forms on the inside of the shell, which is used for jewelry making purposes. Abalone is edible and is one of the most expensive shellfish in the ocean. Its price comes from the fact that it is hard to harvest because it has to be done by hand and in rough ocean conditions. Wild abalone is getting harder and harder to find and in some places like, California, there was a fishing ban on the gastropod until 2021 in order to get the population up. It can be grown in captivity, but some say it alters the taste. As far jewelry is concerned, abalone shell is sometimes darker in its rainbow of color than other mother of pearl. The shells themselves are used for smudging ceremonies to catch the ash of the sage stick. During an Apache Sunrise Ceremony, the young girl will wear one on her forehead.
At Pickle Barrel Trading Post, we sell abalone shells for smudging purposes, ceremonial purposes, and set in jewelry. We feature more jewelry that has mother of pearl set alongside other colorful gemstones. When you look in our jewelry cases, your eyes will immediately focus on anything containing mother of pearl because of that astonishing iridescent quality. When paired with other gemstones and set in sterling silver, it will always be on trend. Mother of pearl has been a staple in American Indian jewelry since it was traded between tribes from the coasts to tribes inland, and it is a good thing since it adds wonderful variety to magnificent pieces of jewelry.
by Cameron Vines
photos by Jim Lindtrom