Mother of Pearl Museum Alive & Well in France
Mother of Pearl Museum
Inside were baskets of shell and nacre, also known as mother of pearl – the shiny and strong mineral molluscs like oysters produce to coat the inside of their shells. The contents have been brought from far-flung parts of the world – including Madagascar – to Méru in the years when its factories used them to produce buttons and other small objects like dominos and dice, referred to as tabletterie.
The Museum of Nacre and Tabletterie is an unusual find, a record of a trade long forgotten in an age of mechanisation. It opened in May 1999, following the efforts of a group of local enthusiasts committed to safeguarding the vanishing heritage of the craft. Ever since, it has welcomed on average 20,000 visitors a year.
The museum tour begins with a question: “What is tabletterie?” None of us know. Our guide describes how the term originated in the middle ages, when the first craftsmen made wooden tablets coated with wax to write on; these became associated with religious rites and were later realised in precious materials. In Méru, tabletterie started off as a cottage industry in the 1700s. During the winter months, farmers worked at home hand-carving a range of items that included knife handles and combs, crucifixes, small boxes and cases and the sticks and guards of folding fans from bone, horn and wood.
The trade expanded and flourished in the 19th century with the introduction of button-making, facilitated by the advent of steam-powered machinery. At its height, in 1910, as many as 10,000 workers were employed in the region’s button factories.
“Although the industry was very local,” explains the museum guide, “the raw materials were coming from all across the world”. Shipments arrived at Le Havre to be transported to Hauts-de-France, while the finished product was sent to grand couture houses and department stores in Paris and exported to Europe, Africa and America.
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