Part of the Pearls exhibition.

A Timeless Appeal

Throughout history, certain cultures have placed little or no value on pearls and have focused instead on luminescent mother-of-pearl from mollusk shells. Before the 19th century, Japanese shell divers who found pearls apparently did not bother to keep them. Polynesian children are said at one time to have used pearls as marbles. These and other peoples harvested pearl oysters for their shells, using the mother-of-pearl for decoration. Abalone was also popular with many groups, including those in the Americas: people ate the flesh of the mollusks and used pieces of colorful abalone shell as inlay on carved objects made of wood, ivory and bone.

Carved shell Mother-of-pearlPhilippine Islands, c. 1935
AMNH #943854

Images of dragons playing with a pearllike object are very common in Asian art. Shells such as this one, from the Silver-lipped Pearl Oyster, were probably carved for the Western export trade.