Making Pearl Nuclei from Memphis Button Factory Shells

by Rives McDow

When I was growing up in Brownsville Tennessee, my father had many businesses simultaneously running. His main business was McDow Feed and Seed Company, and McDow Country Hams (now Tripp Country Hams). One business he had, that I helped him with when I was in high school, was developing a method to shape mother of pearl from the old WWII button factory in Memphis into perfectly round pieces, which he sold to Mikimoto in Japan. He had a color sorting machine, which cost over $10,000 at the time, that used compressed air jets to puff the polished pieces into one of three funnels, depending on their color, which was detected by color detectors on the inlet stream. I used to love to run this machine. His production machines started by sawing the mother of pearl pieces from the button factory into cubes. These were then put into a table that shook them and at the same time ground them from the top and the bottom, in large batches. These machines were about 4' square, and held a lot of pieces. The pieces once they were made round were then transferred to another machine that polished them, after removing the defective pieces. After polishing, they went to the color sorter, then we shipped them off to Mikimoto. This was a real Rube Goldberg machine, taking up a large part of one of his three warehouses. It ran the length of the warehouse, feeding shells into the hopper about 15' off the ground, moving the shells through the various machines as they were eventually turned into mother of pearl nuclei.

Once some people came from Mikimoto to visit my father, stayed in Memphis, noticed the huge piles (acres of them) of shells from the old button factory on the side of the river, and a few months later a few barges showed up, loaded all of the shells onto the barges with cranes and buckets, and down the river they went, then were shipped off to Japan for Mikimoto to process them there. That was the end of my father's business in pearl nuclei making, but he had about eight other businesses going, so spent his time developing them.

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May 29, 2014
Love hearing these stories
by: Kari

Hello Rives,

I love hearing these stories. Soon all these memories will be gone of those acres of shells. Our city, Muscatine, Iowa, apparently had streets paved with them, although they are all buried now. When every any road construction is being done some punched out shells can often be found.

That must have been quite a machine. I can't imagine all the tasks it could accomplish...even sorting by color.

I've had the pleasure of meeting the president of Mikimoto. You can see me talking with him here in Dubai.

Thank you for sharing! God bless, Kari

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