Tricks of the Trade:
Buying Egyptian Mother of Pearl
by Jimmy Dunn
Notation: Very fine Egyptian Mother of Pear items can be purchased in our Virtual Khan el-Khalili, along with other Egyptian products.
We have been doing a great deal of learning and researching Egyptian products, and what we have discovered should be of interest to many of our readers, especially those traveling to Egypt. Take for example, mother of pearl.
There are an extensive number of products utilizing mother of pearl. Of course, there are all sizes and styles of boxes with such inlays, but there are also game boards, plates, tables and other furniture, as well as many other items. Some of these are very beautiful works of art. Other pieces are pure junk.
To begin with, many of the items sold as having mother of pearl inlays are not mother of pearl at all, but rather plastic. If the item is very cheap, for example, a normal souvenir drum, the mother of pearl is probably plastic, regardless of what the merchant advises. One may normally tell the difference between plastic and real mother of pearl because the plastic is less shiny and does not catch the light as does the real item. Also, the individual pieces within the inlay will not have the variety of rich colors as the piece is moved about in the light.
In fact, probably the majority of items that are suppose to have mother of pearl inlays are probably mixed, having some plastic and some real mother of pearl. A close examination with a bright light source is needed in order to tell for certain. One must examine each inlayed area of the products, as well as the individual pieces within the inlay. For example, an inlayed game board may have real mother of pearl used in the game pattern, but on the side of the box, the inlays may be plastic, or mixed with real mother of pearl.
On the other extreme from purely plastic inlays, the best quality, pure mother of pearl inlayed products will have tiny pieces of real mother of pearl laid in a tight, smooth pattern with no obvious flaws. Running a hand over the inlay will reveal a satin like finish and the overall workmanship, including the wood or other finish will also appear superior.
Between the purely plastic items and the very best genuine products one may find a whole range of quality. As mentioned above, some products will have a mix of plastic and mother of pearl, but other products will perhaps be pure mother of pearl. For those items that are pure mother of pearl, the critical issues are the size of the individual pieces and the precision of their fit within the pattern. Obviously, items that have a pattern of poorly fitted mother of pearl pieces are less valuable than those with a good fit. But equally, the art implies that the smaller the individual pieces, the greater the workmanship required to produce the object.workmanship required to produce the object.
Pieces such as the box we depict in this article are fairly rare. When visiting the Khan recently, our intention was to purchase individual items as samples. Yet in one of the largest mother of pearl stores in the real Khan el-Khalili, only a couple of top quality pieces were actually available. Therefore, when we do reopen our Virtual Khan, most all of our products will be made to our specifications, as we intend to offer only the finest merchandise (you can always buy lesser quality elsewhere on the net).
The tightly fit, but handmade mother of pearl pattern
Now the real trick when purchasing mother of pearl in Egypt at the real world Khan el-Khalili, is to bargain for the item you have examined, and never let it leave your site. Even mother of pearl items with tightly fitted, small pieces can nevertheless be mixed with plastic. If you have managed to make a good bargain, talking the merchant down from his original price, be sure to leave with the actual item that was examined. Some, and I might say many of the merchants may attempt to substitute an item of lesser quality. He or she may also, in the bargaining process, bring out other pieces that they can sell at a reduced price, but each item must be closely examined, because even though the pieces may look very similar, some may be of mixed plastic. It is important to note that the very best of the mother of pearl products are each an individual work of art produced by a craftsman, and so no two will be exactly alike.
Last Updated: July 5th, 2011