Pearls from Birmingham

On a chilly April evening a gathering of members of the Society were entertained by George Hook with a talk about his company - the last Mother of Pearl manufacturer still producing these products in the Midlands.

George is a natural raconteur and in a talk delivered with detail, style and humour he unveiled a fascinating story. It was a story of enterprise and entrepreneurial spirit containing references as to why Birmingham has lost its pre-eminence as the workshop of the world. The pressure of global markets and emerging economies are continually bringing pressure on labour intensive skilled manufacturing industry lacking unique technology and characteristics.

But George is not yet ready for demise; he continues to operate the family business, founded in 1824 by old Uncle John (with several 'greats' prefixed). He stated that he has reached the eminent position of Managing Director of the company. He is also its Marketing Director, Finance Director, skilled operative and sweeper upper. In all a typical one man company producing a first class product. There is no one to follow him; his son has decided to take up a more lucrative career. So when George decides to retire the last Mother of Pearl manufacturer in Birmingham will close.

George, armed with a boxful of samples, took us through the process of manufacturing from Mother of Pearl - which comes from Oyster shells although some Abalone and Nacre are also used. The raw material is obtained world wide and is of varying price, size and quality. He demonstrated the products which he manufactures from this simple but beautiful raw material. Buttons, belt buckles, cutlery handles and jewellery are typical. Implicit in this process are products of fine craftsmanship. For example Jewellery and Cutlery handles which are labour intensive and expensive to produce, blended in with simpler products such as buttons - which are less labour intensive but un-competitive in price with alternative products offered by the Chinese and others.

Like all good speakers, George stimulated thoughtfulness in the audience. The wonder of nature as exemplified in the shape, structure and beauty of some of the shells; the production of natural and artificial pearls and the process of filtration through the body of the Oyster to produce Mother of Pearl - essentially Calcite from the spittle of the Oyster reflecting a colour from its specific location.

In all it was a fascinating evening. For those wanting to learn more there is a book by Susan Perfect (George's sister) entitled The Birmingham Pearlies with a forward by Carl Chinn. This is an account of the Pearl industry in Birmingham from the 18th century to the present day. There is also a website:

Tony Crookes
April 2010