There were quite some old-fashioned white mother of pearl shirt buttons in my grandma's button box; they always fascinate me. They have a nice cold solid touch, a beautiful shiny and iridescent appearance and often a very interesting rough backside, they are all different and they are heavier than plastic buttons. I learned that there are actually two types of mother of pearl buttons; those made from freshwater mussel shells and those made from ocean shells, with the latter having more brilliance. Round blanks are cut from the washed shells, polished and drilled.
Freshwater mother of pearl buttons were made from 1892 to the 1960s along the Mississippi River in the USA. Because at the end of the 19th century, the ocean shell buttons were very popular but expensive, a German immigrant button maker started to create buttons from the freshwater shells. It was a great success; a huge clam button industry was the result. Almost every man, woman and child along the Mississippi River was working somewhere in the button industry, families camped along the shores, catching, cleaning, drilling, polishing, carding, etc. It is said that the smell was really aweful in those areas. Finally they could not compete anymore with the cheaper and more durable plastic buttons, and the freshwater mother of pearl button industry died out.
Beautiful ocean mother of pearl buttons were made in the 18th and 19th century, often carved, engraphed, dyed, embellished with jewels etc. They were made in France, Germany and the UK, but the shells came from the Philippines, Japan, Australia, Panama, Egypt, etc. Those first two countries are still today's main ocean shell button suppliers.
The most expensive shell is the white macassar from the East Indies, and the most pupular ones are probably the abalone with its striking colours and the smoked black Tahiti shell, but buttons were also made from cowries, helmet shells, pinna shells and conches.
Marilyn V. Green. The Button Lover's Book (Creative Machine Arts Series). Chilton Book Co, 1991. ISBN 978-0801980107
Muscatine Pearl Button Museum
Stephanie Hackstein. Buttons. History and Production. Markstein Verlag, Filderstadt 2007. ISBN 978-3-935129-40-4
The Keep Homestead Museum, Monson, MA