Every Detail Counts – the Art of Inlay, Part 1

Picture if you will a shell, delicate and brittle. Imagine sketching a design with a soft pencil on it’s surface and then gently cutting around the shape with a small saw. You need to be sure that the blade moves cleanly through the shell, with smooth even strokes. Cut too hard or too fast and the shell will shatter and you must begin again. A steady hand is needed for this task.

You work the coping saw carefully around the edges of the pencil-line until, at last, the shape is freed from the surrounding shell.

At Theodore Alexander we pride ourselves on our hand crafted techniques and seashell (or mother of pearl) inlay is no exception. Every piece of seashell inlay is individually cut and inlaid by specialist craftspeople.

Above, a selection of shell pieces await final finishing before they can be inlaid into veneer.

The design for the inlay (above) is delicately carved out with a specialist tool. The shell will fit exactly within the areas which have been meticulously created.

The white of the shell pieces (above) contrasts against the unfinished tones of the wood as the shell marquetry is laid in place.

After final finishing and the application of hand painted details, the end result is stunning surfaces enriched with intricate designs. The ‘Wildflower‘ chest is a testament to the hours of painstaking artisanship required in shell and mother of pearl inlay.

The 'Wildflower' Chest (detail)

Corner detail of The 'Wildflower' Chest

This tiny detail of the 'Wildflower' Chest has been created with numerous delicate pieces of natural shell.

The 'Wildflower' Chest

This decorative bookcase is inlaid with thousand of individual pieces of shell.

‘Endless Days’ has a Victorian look and feel

For a more rustic look ‘The Lady’s Cabinet’ combines the Castle Bromwich surface distressing with shell detailing.

'The Lady's Cabinet'

The origin of Mother of Pearl inlayed furniture is often assumed to have come from Asia. The earliest evidence dating from China’s Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600-1050 B.C.). Some of the finest examples of this art form came from Korea and China between the 12th and 18th centuries.

The technique originated in the Mesopotamian empire. Excavations in the ancient city of Ebla (circa 3200-1600BC) show that mother of pearl inlaid furniture existed from circa 2300BC onwards, in what is now Syria. The Arabic world had long had trade relationships with Asia and it may be that the techniques migrated – although a concurrent evolution of techniques cannot be discounted.

Whatever the origin or chronology of the technique, whether in the geometrically patterned parquetry of Mesopotamian Ebla, or the sinuous and painterly work of Asian parquetry – the versatility and iridescence of the material and its varied application is an aspect that holds timeless fascination for the connoisseur.

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