Mother-of-Pearl (MOP) carving has been a Bethlehem tradition since the art was introduced to the city by Franciscan friars from Damascus during the 15th century. According to the Custody of the Holy Land, the Franciscan friars brought skillful artists from Italy who worked in the craft, and the sons of Bethlehem learned and excelled in the craft.
A Long History of Pilgrimage Connection to Mother-of-Pearl
A constant stream of pilgrims generated a demand for these items, which incidentally also provided jobs for women. The industry was noted in the writings of author Richard Pococke, who visited Bethlehem in 1727, in his book entitled, A Description of the East and Some other Countries, Vol. I: Observations on Egypt, W. Boyer, London, 1743.
Star of Bethlehem handcrafted of olive wood and coated with iridescent mother-of-pearl
What is Mother-of-Pearl?
Mother-of-pearl is made from the iridescent layer of material that forms the shell lining of mollusks like pearl oysters and abalone, which are the primary sources of today’s Holy Land jewelry and designs. Mother-of-pearl was actually given its name because it is the creator, the “Mother,” of today’s pearls. The layers that line the mollusks’ interior have absolutely nothing to do with the aesthetic appearance of the shell. It’s made up of plates of aragonite, which the mollusk secretes. It is layered with silk to make it extremely flexible and perfect for use in Holy Land gifts.
The Beauty of MOP as a Carving Material
Stunning, handcrafted, Last Supper, carved from olive wood and mother-of-pearl
The luminescent mother-of-pearl has a rich history in the Holy Land as a carving material that evolved from a cultural habit into an art form along with olive wood carving when Franciscan friars came to the Holy Land. During their stay, the friars taught the people of the Holy Land to carve mother-of-pearl into a rosary, crucifix and reproductions of the Cave of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
The First Exhibit of MOP in America
Mother-of-pearl artifacts were first exhibited in the West at The World’s Fair in New York in 1852. Two brothers, Giries and Ibrahim Mansur, exhibited their work and were a great success. Jordan encouraged this industry by exhibiting mother-of-pearl artifacts in the Brussels and New York International Fairs.
The MOP Tradition Continues Today
Mother-of-pearl retains its rich history and is still a specialized medium. Today, you can find second generation mother-of-pearl craftsmen in the Bethlehem area– the birthplace of Christ Himself, skillfully making these authentic Holy Land gifts.
The Franciscan Holy Land Gift Shop carries a variety of exquisitely hand carved mother-of-pearl products including necklaces, crosses, and keepsake boxes. Every purchase made at the Franciscan Holy Land Gift Shop is obtained through Fair Trade practices, and more importantly, supports Christian families in the Holy Land.