The Quest for Mother-of-Pearl

Part of the Pearls exhibition.

Polynesian Mother-of-pearl

Until the 20th century, divers in Tahiti and the Tuamotu Archipelago (both now part of French Polynesia) spent most of their time hunting for mother-of-pearl rather than pearls. The shells of Black-lipped Pearl Oysters and other species of mollusks such as the Green Turban snail often contain thick mother-of-pearl, and Polynesians traditionally used these nacreous shells for buttons or decorative work. Today Polynesians draw on their deep-seated understanding of local pearl oyster beds to preserve them. Larvae from these beds are collected and raised for use in pearl culturing.

Australia: From Mother-of-pearl to Pearl Culturing

Like Polynesians, native Australians historically prized mother-of-pearl over pearls. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, sailing ships known as luggers traveled the waters off the coast of northern Australia in search of mother-of-pearl. The luggers carried one or two divers and their equipment, including helmets and heavy canvas or rubber suits needed for the cold, deep waters. As interest shifted from mother-of-pearl to pearls, however, the Australian diving industry transformed, focusing instead on collecting pearls and the pearl oysters used today for pearl culturing.