Nacre is crystalline aragonite or calcium carbonate. Shellfish and mollusks excrete it when they are exposed to a parasite or a foreign body introduced into a shell. It is noted for its shine and iridescence, and its coating on shells is called mother of pearl.
In some situations, production of nacre is induced or cultured by introducing a foreign body to a shellfish. This is the case with cultured pearls, where the formation of pearls is accelerated by placing small foreign shell bits in oysters. It essentially “cultures” the production of nacre, resulting in valuable and iridescent pearls. Alternately, fresh pearls or naturally occurring pearls are usually an oyster’s or mussel’s response to parasitic agents. Since the methods for producing this substance are not externally controlled, the quality and size of these pearls can vary.
Nacre also tends to line the inside of mollusk shells. It can even be seen in garden snails, but it is most noticeable and impressive in sea mollusks. From time to time, people can find shells that exhibit either a white or black shine on their interior, often making them appealing to shell collectors.
When not in pearl form, this substance has been used in a variety of decorative forms. Mother of pearl was traditional on shirt buttons, and some brands still use it. It may also be used on the keys or components of musical instruments. The dial on Rolex® and many other high end watches also use mother of pearl.
Nacre may be worked into tiles, designs in the wood of decorative boxes for jewelry, create cufflinks, or be used in jewelry like rings, necklaces, and earrings. It may also be used with porcelain for kitchen and bathroom sinks. The quality of mother of pearl depends upon the thickness of the crystalline forms, and whether or not the nacre has been dyed to produce certain colors.
Though most people associate nacre with ocean-dwelling mollusks, much of what is produced commercially is found among fresh water shellfish like mussels. Though abalone is commonly thought a terrific source for decorative purposes, harvesting of the sea snails can be limited in some areas. Commercial producers often find it easier to use smaller, easier to obtain, and less endangered animals for this purpose.
What Is Nacre?
Nacre is an excretion inside the shell of mollusks that is shiny and iridescent. The secretions are made from calcium carbonate called crystalline aragonite and are used as a defense mechanism. The secretions are meant to protect the delicate tissues within. Excretions happen when something enters the shell that shouldn’t be there; it will trap and layer over the foreign body. Depending on the object and what kind of shell is producing the nacre, it could end up as mother of pearl or valuable and iridescent pearls.
How Does Nacre Form?
Not all shellfish or mollusks secrete nacre as a mode of defense. Primarily nacre comes from oysters, mussels, and marine gastropods. Although, you can occasionally find nacre on the inside of some land snail shells too. When the carbonate aragonite secretion hits the shell, it creates a hard layer. As each secretion settles, another layer hardens on top of the other.
The iridescent nature of the nacre is due to the aragonite. The thickness of aragonite platelets is close to visible light wavelengths. As a result, the platelets interfere with how light affects the visibility from certain angles. You will see different colors variants, depending on how you view the subject.
Can Nacre Be Cultured?
Nacre is often cultured. In fact, many sustainable farms culture pearls to safely take and replace the ones taken for harvest. One thing to keep in mind about culture-assisted pearls is that they are often irregular. Irregular pearls can range from rare and costly to inexpensive and flawed. Professional nacre workers have extensive knowledge on how best to supplant the foreign objects within the shells to produce the best results.
Because mollusks will produce the calcium carbonate crystalline aragonite for the duration of their lives, having a sustainable supply is ideal for pearl cultivation. Pearls are formed through a forced entry, hostage, and secretion process called encystation. If the foreign object gets in, whether cultured or utilizing natural selection, it is not getting out.
The secretion solidly stops the foreign object or parasite in the layer of nacre, and another concentric layer is secreted again and again. Once the water and nacre swirl and harden, the bivalve will have created either a pearl or a blister pearl. Pearls are formed in the soft tissue of the mollusk, and blister pearls form on the inner mantle layers. A shell blister is a pearl-like blister that forms outside the shell mantle, though they produce no actual pearls.
Is Nacre Expensive?
Mother of pearl is in the medium range of cost, and it is found in abundance. It can also regularly be found discarded when harvesters have found all the pearls they need. It is not uncommon for mother of pearl to wash up on beaches. However, there are mother of pearl selections greatly coveted by certain high-dollar brands. The brands aren’t likely to begin purchasing from a small-time nacre dealer, so pedaling shells probably isn’t in your future. Big brands use mother of pearl for watch faces and hands, guitar inlay, shirt buttons, and jewelry.
How Is Nacre Used?
Originally, nacre and mother of pearl were in great demand. Since nacre has a hardness close to platinum, it is durable but requires either special sealant or careful maintenance, which is why it likely fell out of common favor. It was used for flooring, walls, mirrors, jewelry, bathrooms, and spas in the early days.
Now, it still has the same uses but is primarily relegated to accents and inlays. Nacre comes in many colors that people enjoy. From silvers and greens to purples and pinks and shiny blacks, nacre is a common jewelry element still. Others choose to ignore its natural beauty and opt for bleached versions; the cream and white nacre still holds its iridescence even without a color profile. An additional use of nacre is to carve it into a small spoon explicitly used for caviar since any metal alters the delicate flavor profile.
Can You Keep Nacre?
Though nacre can be sold for high prices depending on the culture and product, it can also be relatively inexpensive due to its wide availability. If you are combing the beach with friends and find a shell with nacre on it, you can keep that for yourself.
There is no ocean merchant that you have to pay for your find. The only places you have to be wary of leaving the environment the way you found are protected federal lands and private properties. Public areas have little to no regulations concerning finders keepers.