For collectors like us, deciding what our favorite type of button is akin to picking a favorite child. However, if we had to choose, carved mother-of-pearl buttons would top the list alongside enamels and cut steels. The luminous depth and iridescent glow of delicate mother-of-pearl buttons are truly enchanting.
Bethlehem pearls are some of the most beautiful in our collection. These large and intricate buttons were hand-carved in the Middle East in the heart of the Holy Land. They were exported to Europe and America in the mid-20th century.
Mother-of-pearl carving has been a Holy Land tradition since the days of the Crusades. Mother-of-pearl crosses and beads were among the treasures Richard the Lionheart brought back to England in the 12th century.
In the 15th century, Franciscan friars from Damascus came to Bethlehem. They helped grow the local production of religious artifacts carved from mother-of-pearl and olive wood. Such religious souvenirs grew in popularity over the next three centuries. Examples of the finest and most elaborate pieces can be found in the Vatican's collection.
In the 1940s, a few button collectors began to import beautifully-carved Bethlehem Pearl buttons to America and England. Most of these buttons were large and intricate. Many were of religious subjects, but others were of flowers, birds, hearts, and stars.
We buy these beautiful pieces whenever we find them and have some in our St. Francisville button museum. However, until recently, we've never discovered enough to make jewelry with them. We presumed production of them had ended in the 1970s.
So imagine our delight when we got an email from a small family-owned workshop in Bethlehem offering pearl buttons for sale. They learned their craft from previous generations in their family. Their letter urged us "to buy our products so our family can stay in the holy land and not think about immigrating."
We've enjoyed our association with this family more than we can say, even exchanging videos of Christmas parades in Bethlehem and St. Francisville.
Our Bethlehem Pearl buttons were hand-carved with great skill using small motorized tools in an assembly line fashion. The first artisan carves the openwork design, another carves the surface, and yet another polishes the button and attaches the shank.
Early mother-of-pearl artifacts were made with shells harvested from the fertile floors of the Red Sea. Today they are sourced from Australia, Mexico, and New Zealand.
The biological name for mother-of-pearl is nacre. Nacre is formed from a blend of minerals a mollusk secretes to protect itself from foreign objects, such as sand, in its shell. The nacre wraps itself around the intruding object in layers, creating a pearl and thus is called "the mother of the pearl."
The nacre is what creates the mesmerizing depth of shimmer in high-quality mother-of-pearl and regular pearls. The difference between the two occurs because of where the pearls are formed. Mother of pearls forms in the inner linings, whereas pearls are created when a foreign object enters the shell.
The nacre generates the pearl, but it is artesian, with centuries of skill-building that creates these beautiful buttons.
We love this quote from Just Buttons magazine from an article published circa 1950. An early importer of Bethlehem pearls described watching the process like this, "In wide-eyed amazement we watched the skilled artisans drilling holes with tools dating back to the eras of the Crusades, in the mother-of-pearl shells and beginning to scoop out the pattern without even first sketching in the design. After literally hundreds of tiny strikes with a crude chisel, the design started to take shape. And we held our breath at the last of a thousand or more scoopings. Only one slight miscalculation, and the piece would be ruined."
We are thrilled to offer a small family edition release of necklaces made with Bethlehem pearl buttons. We hope you'll pass these beautiful and unique pieces down through generations in your family.
Read more about our collection of antique and vintage buttons on our Buttonology Blog.