Offering the shimmer and gleam of the water it comes from, mother of pearl handle pocket knives are some of the most collected of all handle materials.
Custom knife makers of pearl handle pocket knives started hitting their groove at the 1978 Kansas City Knifemakers Guild Show. Many of the greats offered beautiful mother of pearl handled blades that wowed the crowd.
With amazing color and shimmer these knives have maintained a huge following for the collector of today. And today we will cover the seriously interesting history of the mother of pearl handle.
Mother of Pearl
Mother of pearl comes from oysters and other shelled mollusks. These little guys produce a substance that is called nacre within their shells. Mother of pearl is the lining of the inside of the mollusks shell.
Mother of pearl is of the same chemical makeup as the round gem, pearl.
The outer shell of mollusks are rough and hard, and of a not so eye appealing color while the inner portion is smooth and radiant.
The mother of pearl within a shell does not come perfectly flat and ready for use by a knifemaker. Instead, the mother of pearl is often curved and uneven in shape. When knifemakers went looking for suitable pieces of pearl they often struggled to get the size and color they needed.
Because large pieces were so scarce, mother of pearl was much more suitable for the makers of pocket knives.
The average slab of mother of pearl used to make pocket knife handles is around 1/8 inch thick and 3.5 inches long and 1.25 inches wide. This allows the knifemaker the material needed to custom make the fine vintage handles collectors prize today.
Mother of Pearl Color Quality
Size is not the only factor when looking at the quality of a pearl handled knife. When judging the color quality of a pearl handle both fire and life are used to describe a handles quality.
Fire is the rainbow like color of the pearl. The more striking and changing the color does when moved is more desirable.
This change in color comes from the way the light is reflected at different angles. It creates a kaleidoscope effect that is truly eye catching.
Life on the other hand is described by the pattern on the pearl. It is the abundance of waves and streaks found in the pearl.
It is possible for a knife handle to have fire but no life, or have life but not fire. The best vintage pearl handle pocket knives offer both life and fire. A high quality piece will both absorb and reflect light in a truly unique way.
When examining a vintage pearl handle knife be sure to also look for milky areas and other imperfections in the pearl. Other issues you will find are small cracks and fissures in the surface of the pearl. Knives with these imperfections are less valuable.
Most vintage mother of pearl handle pocket knives had their material sourced from western Australia. The pearls produced here were prized for their life and fire. There was great variation found in the pearls sourced from Australia and many amazing pieces can be found by the patient collector. Because of this variation you will rarely (if ever) find a knife where both sides of the handle are uniform. While not required, the most sought after knives will have handles with fairly uniform sides.
Do Pearl Handles Degrade
One of the most impressive qualities of mother of pearl handles is it’s durability over time. Pearl is a very stable material that does not shrink or crack due to age. Temperature and humidity have little effect on pearl making it an amazing material for knife handles.
Some food acids can dull the luster of the pearl and sometimes sweat contains acid that does the same. But both of these situations are usually not a problem for the collector as they do not come into contact with either.
If you do find a knife handle dulled by acid this can also be corrected as it is only a surface blemish. Simply wash and buff with semichrome for an original luster.
Pearl can be dinged or cracked when hit on a harder surface but a surprisingly large number of examples have survived decades without being broken.
Many collectors are drawn to the beauty of vintage pearl handle knives. They definitely comprise a large portion of my personal collection and I am always looking to add to my collection. Many old timer knife makers prized using pearl and believed they were the ultimate knife handle material. They offer not just beauty but also an impressively strong material perfect for a knife meant to be used.