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Is mother of pearl losing its shine? Is mother of pearl losing its shine?

Is mother of pearl losing its shine?

Charlotte Harris

The watch industry is always changing; it’s one of the main reasons we stay interested. Some styles will always be a permanent fixture, while others are trends that come and go. But what about mother of pearl? It’s a material that’s been used in watchmaking for centuries, and yet more recently, there’s been fewer and fewer models sporting these iridescent displays.

The exact date of its first use in watchmaking is difficult to pinpoint but mother of pearl was particularly popular during the 19th century when advancements in technology made it easier to work with. In recent years, it has been predominantly used in so-called “ladies'” watches, and truthfully, it’s become something of a visual code for “shrink-it-and-pink-it” models.

What is mother of pearl?

Before I start listing my reasons why I think mother of pearl is taking a back seat role, let’s first explain exactly what this material is, where it comes from, and the different types used in watchmaking. Mother of pearl, also known as nacre, is a shiny, iridescent substance that is naturally created on the inner shell of certain under-the-sea creatures. It is commonly found within the shells of certain molluscs, such oysters and abalones.

example of nacre mother of pearl
Image sourced from discoverwildlife.com

Nacre is a combination of calcium carbonate crystals and a protein called conchiolin, which when layered together in an imperfect way, creates the shimmering, iridescent effect we associate with mother of pearl. The material is formed when an irritant, such as a grain of sand or parasite, enters the mollusk’s shell. The mollusk then secretes layers of nacre around the irritant to protect itself, resulting in the formation of mother of pearl.

In the context of watches, mother of pearl has been used for a number of years as a decorative element on watch dials. It’s often associated with women’s watches, adding a feminine, elegant finish to a clean display. White mother of pearl is the most commonly used variant with a classic off-white colour, but examples of black, pink and blue mother of pearl have also been found in some watchmaker’s collections.

The same dial over and over

longines la grande classique mother of pearl (1)

It wasn’t until recently, when a family friend asked me what I thought of a Longines La Grande Classique, that I realised how outdated mother of pearl felt. The watch in question was reference L4.709.2.88.7, a 33mm two-tone quartz watch (similar to the above) with an iridescent white mother of pearl dial and 12 diamond dot indices. It wasn’t the size, the two-toned case, nor the quartz movement that felt archaic; it was the pearly dial.

When I first started my career writing about watches back in 2015, I remember explicitly thinking most watches marketed to women looked the same. They were basically carbon copies of each other, boasting 30mm-ish cases, white or pink mother of pearl dials and diamond dot indices. Pretty much exactly like the Longines La Grande Classique mentioned above. They were also predominantly powered by quartz movements – not always of course – but there was a limited choice of mechanical variants. This meant that it was always more fun writing about the variety of “men’s” watches.

frederique constant slimline ladies mother of pearl

So, with there being an endless choice of mother of pearl dials out on the market, has it meant we’ve become bored of them? Possibly. Humans will always be attracted to shiny things; it’s just how our brains work, but it’s clear from recent watch releases that women’s tastes are changing, and our love of shiny things is transitioning from mother of pearl to other dial finishes.

As well as being tired of seeing the same styles, we can also put it down to women buying more watches for themselves. Audemars Piguet recently revealed that the number of women buying watches for themselves is expected to rise to 30% by 2025 and 40% by 2030, from 23% in 2022 and 16% in 2021. Women are starting to be spoken to directly in the industry as the number of female voices grows, so it makes sense that they’re choosing the watches they want, rather than accepting the small and sparkly jewellery-inspired pieces gifted by others.

No more shrink-it-and-pink it

tag heuer aquaracer solargraph mother of pearl (1)

For a long time, particularly during the early ’90s, women’s watches were ultimately smaller versions of men’s watches with pink or diamond adornment – hence the well-known phrase “shrink-it-and-pink-it”. Thankfully, this isn’t the case anymore, and watch brands have grown to understand that women like wearing “big” watches, mechanical watches, and watches without diamonds or mother of pearl.

Over the past five years, the likelihood of women buying a watch with a case diameter larger than 40mm has increased by 25% (according to the sales at Chrono24) and when you look at recent women’s releases like the Breitling Chronomat Victoria Beckham collection, there’s not a single diamond or mother of pearl dial in sight. The same can be said for the freshly launched Longines Mini DolceVita and Hamilton Boulton Macaron lines. Again, mother of pearl has been replaced by colourful pastel dials and silver flinqué.

breitling chronomat 36 victoria beckham (1)

We’ve seen a clear increase in bright coloured dials over the last few years. The popular Tiffany blue of 2023 is still apparent alongside bright pinks, reds, purples, greens, oranges etc. No doubt this is influencing the popularity of mother of pearl. People are less afraid of colourful expression, and in turn, watch brands are becoming braver at experimenting with bolder dial designs. It just means those overused displays of mother of pearl are taking a back seat in the meantime.

Take the recently launched Rolex Day Date 40 example. The 18k white gold model classically utilises white mother of pearl across the dial beside baguette-cut diamond indices. The iridescence of the pearl works wonderfully with the fluted bezel and Oyster bracelet, and as a bonus, the 40mm case diameter grants it access to most wrist sizes. Rolex continued this extremely rich mother of pearl across the new Daytona models as well, again featuring the versatile case size of 40mm.

rolex day date 40 mother of pearl

I also have to applaud TAG Heuer for its recent use of mother of pearl in its Aquaracer Solargraph 200 model. The material adds a feminine touch to the overtly sports-inspired steel architecture inclusive of a steel 60-minute bezel and three-row link bracelet. The solar-powered TH50-01 is also a fun add-on not often found in watches sized to 34mm.

Although mother of pearl is clearly going nowhere, I do believe we’re going to see less of the material over the next few years. Women don’t just want small, pink-toned watches that act as jewellery. More of us are enjoying the complexity of traditional mechanical manufacture and want bolder, brighter colours and styles that represent us as a wearer.