I went to an illustrated talk at our local library, recently. It was given by a highly skilled individual by the name of George Hook. George is the last remaining Pearl Button Maker, based in Birmingham and the Black Country, who can trace his forebears back through five generations, to the Company’s inception back in 1824.
George makes many small items of jewellery, such as Pendants, Cufflinks & Brooches. His other work includes making small condiment spoons, and inlay work, particularly for fret boards for fine quality guitars.
What is the relevance of this for the piano trade you may ask? Mother-of-Pearl inlay was used in the decorating of fine quality furniture, and so it was with pianos. Early instruments received varying amounts of inlay and carving, the heaviest being reserved for the Victorian Period. Most of the inlaid work went into the ‘top door’ i.e. the panel which is right in front of you when you are seated. Usually in the form of a ‘Rosette’ decoration.
You may be intrigued to learn, that the term ‘Mother-of-Pearl’ is technically given to the Oyster shell where the pearl is formed from its initial grain of sand. As it grows and develops, the Oyster is its protective ‘Mother’- hence the name. The trade first developed with the introduction of much larger oyster shells which arrived in ship’s ballast from Australia. These larger shells were much more versatile than small native oysters. Other shells such as Abalone, Trochus and Conch, were usually sourced from Japan, Polynesia and Manilla.
After much grinding and polishing, the Mother-of-Pearl is ready to be fashioned into its end product, for example inlay work on guitar fret boards, the fingerboards & bodies of bowed stringed instruments, decoration on early keyboards and jewellery work.
Sadly, these skilled individuals, along with the Harpsichord/Early Keyboard makers and other specialist instrument builders, seem to be drastically declining. The British Piano Trade, thriving many years ago, has all but gone. So we need an influx of specialist Musical Instrument Makers and/or Early Keyboard Restorers to take the skills forward. Anyone willing to take up the challenge?