The natural iridescence of pearl is bringing opulence to homes
It would take a hopelessly mundane soul not to find poetry in a pearl. Each usually begins life as a humble piece of grit caught in the shell of a mollusc. The poor creature, irritated beyond endurance, enrobes the intruder in layer upon layer of nacre (also known as mother of pearl), transfiguring the fragment of grit into a smooth, iridescent orb, which may later be prised from its shell and worn as a decorative bauble, allowing the wearer to bask in its reflected glow.
But even if neither poetry nor pearls are your thing, nacre, from which the surface of a pearl is made, should impress you. If you were to examine a sample under a microscope – as many spellbound scientists have – you would see it is composed of hexagonal platelets laid in brick-like layers and fixed together with a mortar-like substance. The platelets are made of calcium carbonite, like chalk, while the mortar’s a mixture of biopolymers: chitin, lustrin and silk-like proteins. It’s these layers, which are between three hundred and five hundred nanometres thick, that produce the iridescent effect – they interfere with wavelengths of visible light, making them shift and shimmer.
Nacre is one of nature’s super-materials. Quite apart from its unquestionable beauty, it is impressively tough. Some species of mollusc use it to line the interior of their shells as a form of protection. Squeezed by a crab’s nutcracker-like pincer or a pair of researcher’s tweezers, nacre demonstrates an extraordinary resilience. Small cracks may appear, but they are inhibited by the form of the nacre, and, because the cracks don’t spread, the structure stays largely intact, protecting whatever lies within.
Pearl is rarefied and expensive, but should you find yourself overwhelmed with the desire to make like a mollusc and coat the walls of your home with it, there are options. The most literal – and luxurious – way to do so is with tiles made from the real thing. Maya Romanoff has a range of shimmering tiles made from hand-inlaid capiz shells in various coloured finishes, from the bright white ‘Natural Pearl’ to the creamy ‘Oyster’ (mayaromanoff.com). It’s also possible to buy homeware made from mother of pearl. Milan-based designer Lorenzi Milano crafts pearly tableware, from spice spoons to curlicue butter knives, available at Mr Porter (mrporter.com).
A less on-the-nose, cheaper and more contemporary take can be found in the rise of products with iridescent finishes. This is something of a slow-burn trend – LSA’S ‘Pearl’ glassware, for example, which has the rounded shape and colourful lustre of soap bubbles ( lsa-international.com), has been around for some time – but it has recently been gathering steam. Patricia Urquiola, Tom Dixon and ceramic artists Dimitri Bähler and Maurizio Tittarelli Rubboli have all been playing around with oil-slick pearlescence. No matter how adept these design grandees, however, it is very hard to imagine them ever managing to fully replicate the consummate excellence of the molluscs who conjure glowing gems from a simple core of grit.
PEARL IS RAREFIED AND EXPENSIVE. PRISED FROM ITS SHELL, IT ALLOWS THE WEARER TO BASK IN ITS REFLECTED GLOW