Mother of pearl is actually a natural shell material, though like pearls it is made up of the layers inside of shells called nacre. It comes from the various types of sea shell mollusks such as oyster shells. If you have ever opened an oyster shell and looked at the inside of it, you may have noticed how it has a luster to it, sort of a shiny affect. This is what can eventually turn into a pearl, but before it does that, you have a thin material that lines the inside of these mollusks shells.
For jewelry designers, there are all kinds of supplies available made from mother of pearl. Let us take beads to begin with. You have regular round beads, for example. These can come very small, around 3 or 4mm in size, or much larger, such as around 12mm in diameter. Then there are lots and lots of bead shapes that are carved from the mother of pearl. Some of these can be free form that are really just parts and pieces of the original shell, and some are actually carved into discernible shapes: oval, flat oval, flat round, tube, rectangular, square, teardrop, tulip, crosses, round faceted (which I adore), hearts, donuts, birds, clubs, and spades.
Mother of pearl beads - no matter what size or shape - also tend to have issues as far as unusual texturing on the surface. This is especially noticeable in round beads. If you look closely at a few, they may be round but not perfectly round. This is due to the fact that you are dealing with a natural material, so the surface is not always going to be perfect. As far as I'm concerned, though, that is one of the elements of this material that I find interesting because it makes every little piece unique and special.
Most often you have probably seen mother of pearl as all white. Any time you see white mother of pearl, you can bet on it that it has been bleached. This sounds kind of bad, but many natural materials used in jewelry are often dyed or enhanced in some way. This is one reason why people tend to think of these as so similar to pearls as well since the coloring can be so much alike.
Natural mother of pearl - meaning it has not been bleach, dyed, or enhanced in any way - is more of a mix of white, off-white, cream, and even a little beige. The natural color is one of my favorites because no two bead look at all the same. Plus it is a wonderful neutral color that you can mix with all kinds of other jewelry making supplies.
Finally as far as color goes for mother of pearl, this material is often dyed, and some times it can be some really funky and fun colors like bright orange or hot pink or even grape purple.
On a similar vein as mother of pearl shapes, this material is also used for pendants, not just beads. Sometimes pendants have mother of pearl inlay and sometimes they are carved directly from the shell.
No matter what color, shape, or type you end up using, when it comes to mother of pearl you have endless possibilities. It tends to be very light weight so it works well for anything from earring to necklaces. It is also relatively speaking fairly inexpensive, especially compared to its sister material - actual pearls.
Here are some jewelry tutorials that incorporate mother of pearl: