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A polished shell of Pāua Abalone (Haliotis iris)

A polished shell of Pāua Abalone (Haliotis iris)

The blackfoot paua (Haliotis iris) is a species of abalone found in the cool coastal waters around New Zealand (and nearby islands such as Stewart Island and the Chatham Islands).  Coincidentally, the word “Haliotis” derives from Ancient Greek and means sea ear—because abalones superficially resemble human ears.  Abalones are large marine gastropods (sea snails) which have long been prized by humans for having delicious meat and gorgeous shells.  The blackfoot paua is no exception—not only is it fished for its flesh, but the Māori people, who are indigenous to New Zealand, esteem it as a treasure to be used in culturally significant works of art. To quote thefeaturedcreature.com, “Typically, the blackfoot abalone is used in Māori carvings to represent eyes; these eyes are associated with the stars or whetū, the symbolic eyes of ancestors that gaze down from the night sky.”

Iwi Le Comte Maori Carving with mount (2011, Totara wood and Paua shell)

Iwi Le Comte Maori Carving with mount (2011, Totara wood and Paua shell)

The shells of blackfoot paua are not naturally iridescent: craft workers expend a great deal of energy grinding away the inconspicuous neutral colored exterior so that the brilliant whirls and swirling colors of the nacre are revealed.  In addition to its lovely shell and tasty flesh the blackfoot paua can also produce scintillating blue-green pearls which are known as blue eyris pearls.

Blue Eyris Pearls next to a polished Pāua abalone shell

Blue Eyris Pearls next to a polished Pāua abalone shell

Like the giant triton, the blackfoot paua is suffering for its beauty.  New Zealand has many sensible regulations to prohibit overfishing the paua: divers must free dive for the mollusks, and fisherfolk can only collect a limited number of specimens of a certain size. Unfortunately even a first-world nation only has so many resources to devote to conservation, and marine experts expect that the blackfoot paua is suffering from overharvest.  Hopefully humankind can find a way to balance the demands of traditional carving with the needs of conservation:  Māori carving is very beautiful, but so too are the living shellfish…

Maori wood carving of Tawhiri, god of storms (at the Arataki Visitor Centre, Auckland, New Zealand)

Maori wood carving of Tawhiri, god of storms (at the Arataki Visitor Centre, Auckland, New Zealand)

Mikimoto Pearl Crown

In the classical Roman world, crowns did not represent monarchy in the same way they later came to during the Middle Ages.  Instead crown and wreathes were granted as an award to individuals who had distinguished themselves–much like a trophy or a medal.  Strangely, this ancient tradition continues today in the world of beauty pageants.  Contests like the Miss America contest, the Miss Universe pageant, and numerous other beauty pageants invariably present a crown to the victor (although the Roman custom has been sadly watered down and winners don’t keep their crown but give it to their successor).

Ex-General Alfred Gruenther presents the pageant crown to Jean Marie Lee of Alaska, the 1957 U.S. Cherry Blossom Queen.

The crowns for the Miss America, Miss USA, and Miss World pageant are gaudy affairs made of crystal and synthetic gemstones, however Mikimoto the world’s great manufacturer of cultured pearls also makes pageant crowns and promotional crowns out of their peerless cultured pearls, and some of these headdresses are strangely lovely and striking.

Pearls are formed when the internal mantle tissues of certain shelled mollusks are injured by a predator attack, a parasite incursion, or some other event. In response, the mollusk secretes nacre into the hollow space formed around the injury. The nacre is composed of calcium carbonate and a fibrous protein known as conchiolin.  In the past pearls were very expensive and rare (so much so that the real crown of the Netherlands is made with fake pearls manufactured of fishskin and paste).  However in the beginning of the twentieth century Japanese entrepreneurs mastered a technique for culturing perfect pearls.  The Mikimoto company has been a pearl culturing company and a fine jeweler ever since.

The Cherry Blossom Festival Crown

For the last century, Mikimoto has created many beautiful crowns in order to show off its wares. In 1957, Mikimoto created the elaborate Cherry Blossom crown for the U.S. Cherry Blossom Queen of the National Cherry Blossom Festival held in Washington DC, which has celebrated Japanese-American friendship since 1912 (except for a few periods, when the festival was canceled for sundry reasons). Mikimoto also made two demonstration crowns which do not have any purpose other than to show off their art.   The crown pictured at the top of this post was crafted by Mikimoto in 1978 to commemorate the 85th anniversary of the discovery of their method of culturing pearls.  Another spectacular demonstration crown was made by Mikimo in 1979 based on Byzantine models and designs.

Mikimoto Pearl Crown II

In 2002 Mikimoto constructed the so-called “Phoenix crown” for the Miss Universe pageant out of 500 diamonds and 120 large South Sea and Akoya pearls.  The crown was presented to pageant winners between 2002 and 2007 when it was sold to a private owner.  Although I object to Miss Universe for false advertising (only denizens of Earth are represented), the large pearls of the pageant crown are certainly very striking.

The Phoenix Tiara used to crown Miss Universe between 2002 and 2007

Here the crown is worn by Riyo Mori, the 2007 Miss Universe pageant winner

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