Mother of pearl is a traditional handcraft mainly based in Bethlehem. It is believed that this handicraft was introduced by the Franciscan monks who came from Damascus to this city around the fifteenth century. This craft has developed greatly during the nineteenth and twentieth century.
During these two centuries, Palestinians mastered this craft and passed it on, mostly in the same family from one generation to the next. The raw material shells, according to source, used to be brought in earlier times by caravans from the Red sea. However, later on, the Bethlehem traders depended on importing shells from New Zealand, Australia, Mexico and Brazil, and recently from New Zealand and India.
The technique and methods for manufacturing mother of pearl need great skill and concentration. The work requires simple tools, for cutting, sawing, and then filling the mother of pearl. The introduction of modern tools in the second half of the twentieth century, such as small motors and tools for carving, has made the work easier. The production of this craft in its early stage was limited to some beads, mosaics, and religious images of Jesus and Mary, But later it included dozens of new objects such as crosses, models of mosques, models of churches, boxes and plates. As indicated by local sources (Chamber of Commerce and Industry), the number of workers and workshops of Bethlehem is around 110 workers, working in 45 commercial workshops and 50 workers in the informal household units. By contrast in 1967, there were one thousand workers employed in 70 commercial workshops and one hundred workers in the household workshops.
Several master artists were outstanding in this field and related to well-known families, such as Dabdoub, Zughbi, Giacaman, Musallam, Friej, Abu Ayash, but only a few of them are still alive. Examples of this craft can be seen in local and outside markets, attracting tourists and pilgrims who value the beauty of mother of pearl craft and who purchase them as gifts.
Mother of Pearl object Mother of pearl craftsman cutting shell