Mother-of-Pearl Buttons

Why are Mother-of-Pearl Buttons so Special?

by Alexander Kabbaz, Master Clothier

In the first place, they are made of a completely natural ingredient with no processing except cutting, drilling, and polishing. They have natural luster and luminescence.

Though many attempts have been made to imitate these characteristics in plastic, all are easily distinguisable from the real thing. Why the quest for imitations? Price tells the entire story. Plastic buttons range in the 1¢ to 5¢ field. Austrailian & New Zealand Grown Oyster Shell Mother-of-Pearl buttons start at $1.50 per button and go up from there. Take a shirt as an example. Shirts contain an average of 14 buttons. Plastic? Under a half-buck. Mother-of-Pearl? An absolute minimum of $21 worth of buttons.

This Australian grown Oyster Shell, about 60 years old when harvested, is 10" across and 1" thick at its thickest point.

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The strength of a properly made pearl button is the stuff of legend. But a bit of caveat emptor is in order. Many "shell" buttons exist. The vast majority are of a substance known as "troca" in the button industry. This catch-all term simply means "shell". Most are cut from what we know as a conch shell. The virtually infinite spiral yields a huge quantity of buttons. Others, even some of pearl, are cut from the thinnest part of the oyster and are too weak. These can be recognized by dark spots or reddish spots or flaking on the rear of the button.

"Turban" Shells ... a type of "Troca"

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The Abalone shell with its legendary rainbow hues makes a gorgeous button for use on garments of appropriate colors.

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Conch Shells ... the most prevalent type of "Troca"

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A word about pearl button quality. Thickness comes first. There are many pearl buttons available which are about a sixteenth of an inch thick. This is insufficient and will break easily. A good pearl button will be at least an eighth of an inch thick and sometimes slightly more. However, if the button gets too thick in relation to its diameter it will tend to pull out of the buttonhole.

Next comes clarity and color. Pearl buttons made from the thin outer edge of the oyster shell will most likely show some of the exterior shell. This is charcterized by mottled spots of color such as black, brown, green, or red on the back of the button. This shell exterior does not have the strength of the thicker parts. As well, the colored spots on the rear will infringe upon the clarity of the white front and give an overall yellowish tinge to the button.

Strength is important. Look for cracking, especially on the rear. If you can see even the faintest evidence of a crack the button will most certainly break at some time during the life of the garment.

Finally, given the cost of these rare gems, they should be sewn on by hand. Machine sewing, aside from its tendency to unravel, is not completely accurate. Often during the sewing the machine needle will strike the button surface. This not only impinges upon the surface beauty but can also create internal cracking which will diminish the button's useful life.

How to hand sew? Check here.

A Range of Shell and Mother-of-Pearl buttons

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Question? Comment? Contact the author.

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