Christmas Pearls: pearly kings and other things

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The Victorians began to create jewellery using a variety of new materials, often deriving from their fascination with the science of the natural world. From jet used in mourning jewels to keepsakes made of human hair, almost any organic material was liable to be crafted into something. Out of this trend, mother-of-pearl began to be widely used for pearl buttons in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Nacre can be sourced from a range of molluscs and so mother-of-pearl was a much more accessible material than pearls themselves. In London, it became common practice for market traders to distinguish their seniority by sewing mother-of-pearl buttons on their clothes and this gave rise to the “Pearly King”. An East London phenomenon, Pearly Kings and Queens are charity collectors who draw attention to themselves by their flamboyantly decorated black suits.

With the Maison Martin Margiela mother-of-pearl encrusted jacket, the trend has come full circle as precious material was first made accessible to all; inspired creation and mutation and was finally re-evaluated and re-created as an object of artisanship.

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