Iridescent mother-of-pearl, one of the most beautiful decorative materials, repays the small amount of time and effort that is needed to
keep it looking its best
Mother-of-pearl - also known as nacre - is a beautiful material formed by the inner lining of the shells of oysters and similar marine creatures such as abalone.
Its beauty depends on its smoothness and its iridescent (glitteringly changing) colouring; pearls are made of the same substance.
Mother-of-pearl can be cut and polished, carved, etched and dyed different colours. It has been used for
many centuries in the decorative arts, particularly for inlay work.
Various artificial materials have been used instead, but few match its lustre. One way to distinguish real mother-of-pearl buttons, for instance, from plastic ones, is to look for ridges and dark shading at the back of the natural
Decorative patterns picked out in mother-of-pearl were added to papier-mache objects in the 19th century.
The Victorians, in fact, had a fondness for mother-of-pearl and it was used to form the handles of brushes and cut-throat razors.
Cutlery handles were also made from it or inlaid with it, as were numerous cosmetic items and boxes.
A quick wipe with a damp cloth should keep mother-of-pearl clean, and a polish with a soft cloth or chamois will keep it gleaming. Very dirty surfaces can be cleaned with a paste of jeweller's rouge or French chalk.
AVOID ACID CLEANERS
The main constituent of mother-of-pearl is calcium carbonate, so keep it away from acids, or it will disintegrate. Avoid soaking it in water, which could loosen the glue holding veneers and inlays in place. As with other delicate materials, it is unwise to subject pieces to the rigours of a dishwasher.
It is difficult to match missing pieces of mother-of-pearl, and major repairs should be entrusted to an expert, as should valuable antiques. Small chips, however, can be effectively repaired with an unlikely modern product pearlized nail varnish.
Heavily engrained dirt and grease may need treating with jeweller's rouge or French chalk ground with a little water to make a thick paste.
Apply this mixture with a soft toothbrush, then remove it using a soft paper tissue followed by a toothbrush. Check that no colour remains in cracks or crevices. Wipe the piece over with a damp cloth wrung out in warm, soapy water and dry it carefully before buffing it up with a soft cloth.
REPAIRING SMALL CHIPS
Cutting new pieces of mother-of-pearl requires a lot of skill to get good results and is really best left to an expert. old pieces that have come loose can be reglued using a contact adhesive.
You can also repair small chips at home by building them up with pearlized nail varnish. You may need as many as four to six coats; allow each coat to dry out thoroughly before applying the next one.
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
• Raid your bathroom and make-up box for orange sticks and cotton wool buds; these can make ideal tools for dealing with small decorative objects.
• Use baby toothbrushes for (leaning; the heads are smaller and the bristles are softer.
• Where intricately cut pieces of mother-of-pearl are inlaid, it is important to wipe them with a smooth cloth so as not to catch the edges and dislodge them.
• Pearlized nail varnish is available in various colours, so you should choose the one which best matches the mother-of-pearl surrounding the