Mother of Pearl Buttons: Radiating from James Bond’s Clothes

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The uniquely shiny, iridescent visage of mother of pearl buttons makes them a luxurious addition to many different kinds of clothes and accessories. Also known as nacre, mother of pearl is a shiny and iridescent substance that forms the inner layer of the shell of some mollusks, particularly the pearl oyster, freshwater pearl mussels, trochus snails and abalone. Pearls are also made of nacre, hence why mother of pearl looks similar to pearls. Buttons are commonly cut from these nacre shells and are either known as mother of pearl buttons or are named after the kind of shell they’re made from.

Part of a large selection of mother of pearl buttons for sale at Pacific Trimming in New York

Typically mother of pearl buttons are found in an off-white colour, but the smoke colour—often called black or grey—is a common alternative. Mother of pearl buttons are also frequently found in beige-brown tones and in cobalt blue, but they can be dyed any colour. Because mother of pearl buttons are desirable but too expensive for lower-priced garments, faux mother of pearl polyester buttons are also common and can look almost as nice. The genuine article can be identified by evidence of a shell backing and by its cool touch at room temperature.

Daniel Craig’s shirt from Tom Ford in Quantum of Solace has mother of pearl buttons
Mother of pearl buttons harmonise with the colour of Roger Moore’s cream shirt from Frank Foster in The Man with the Golden Gun

Shirts are the most common place to find mother of pearl buttons, and they’re a sign of quality on almost any shirt, from formal and dress shirts to camp shirts and polos. When wearing a bow tie, particularly with a dinner jacket, mother of pearl buttons provide a more presentable and sophisticated look than less expensive alternatives. Smoke-coloured buttons are an elegant choice on darker shirts where the buttons won’t stand out as much as white buttons.

Dr. No Dinner Suit
Sean Connery’s dress shirt, either from Turnbull & Asser or Lanvin, in Dr. No fastens with white mother of pearl buttons

The best English shirtmakers—including James Bond’s shirtmakers Turnbull & Asser and Frank Foster—use thin mother of pearl buttons that are 1.5 to 2 mm thick. Some people prefer the bolder look of thicker shirt buttons, and mother of pearl buttons can be found up to 5 mm thick, but neither quality nor durability is dependent on the thickness of the button. Thicker buttons are considerably more expensive, though the cost accounts for only a small part of the cost of a luxury shirt. Thinner shirt buttons have a neater look while thicker buttons make a bolder statement. On a shirt with a fly front, thin buttons are more desirable so the shirt front sits flatter.

Roger Moore’s dress shirt from Frank Foster in The Spy Who Loved Me fastens with smoke mother of pearl buttons to give the impression of studs
A two-hole mother of pearl button on a Frank Foster shirt

White or smoke mother of pearl studs and matching cufflinks—and sometimes matching waistcoat studs—traditionally provide an elegant look for a dress shirt (Tuxedo shirt). White studs look more formal than smoke, with the former being most traditional for white tie and smoke being more common for black tie, but they are interchangeable. Since the 1930s it has been acceptable to wear a dress shirt for black tie with buttons instead of the studs, and mother of pearl buttons provide the interest needed for such a shirt. James Bond shows of white mother of pearl buttons on many of his dress shirts, but in The Spy Who Loved Me his silk dress shirt from Frank Foster features smoke mother of pearl buttons to provide interest to the otherwise plain shirt. The darker buttons sewn with a white thread ‘X’ give the impression of studs at first glance, lending the shirt an elegant but unique touch.

Sean Connery’s ivory dinner jacket from Anthony Sinclair and his dress shirt from Frank Foster in Goldfinger both have white mother of pearl buttons

Mother of pearl buttons are also a traditional choice for ivory dinner jackets, especially when self-faced. James Bond wears four ivory dinner jackets with white mother of pearl buttons in the series. Mother of pearl buttons in an ‘Oyster’ colour—a rosy beige colour—are also popular for ivory dinner jackets because they provide a bit more interest but retain the elegance of the pearl button.

Moonraker Cream Suit
Roger Moore’s cream suit from Angelo Roma in Moonraker has mother of pearl buttons

Mother of pearl buttons are occasionally used on summer suits, blazers and sports coats, especially since mother of pearl buttons have a more summery appearance than the heavier-looking horn buttons that are traditionally found on these types of garments the rest of the year. White mother of pearl buttons look at home on pale-coloured suits and jackets, like on James Bond’s cream silk or silk-blend suit in Moonraker, while they can also provide a nice contrast look on a navy summer blazer. Corozo buttons and pale-coloured horn buttons can also look appropriate on summer garments.

My Anthony Sinclair suit in black and white mohair has smoke mother of pearl buttons to complement its sheen

Smoke mother of pearl buttons are a reliable choice for darker summer suits and blazers where white would have too much contrast. On a navy blazer these buttons can provide an updated look that recalls the metal buttons traditionally found on blazers. Smoke buttons are good for complementing suits with a sheen, like mohair or silk, especially on grey suits. Roger Moore’s sporty light green and navy herringbone solaro-esque suit in The Persuaders! matches its iridescence with smoke mother of pearl buttons.

Roger Moore’s green suit from Cyril Castle in The Persuaders! has smoke mother of pearl buttons

One of the most traditional uses of the smoke mother of pearl button is for the ‘Dax’ buttons on Daks-style trouser side adjusters, as well as for the other external trouser buttons. The buttons used here are flat without a rim to look unobtrusive, and they may have either two holes or four holes. These buttons may be genuine mother of pearl, but the most common is a faux pearl polyester button, sourced from Richard James Weldon who only sell to the trade.

My Anthony Sinclair mohair suit trousers have genuine smoke mother of pearl buttons in the flat Daks style

10 COMMENTS

  1. I must say I am a big fan of smoke mother of pearl on a blazer, it’s a good way to add a touch of uniqueness while still having a very versatile garment.

    Speaking of which, I know the next film (or whatever iteration of media) is quite a ways off, but I really hope they get Bond back in the blazer. It’s a staple both for the character and in general.

    Great post as always Matt.

  2. I added some mother of pearl buttons to a green linen jacket for a touch of uniqueness. I was planning on using white for a summery look, but when it came to adding them I tried the smoke ones instead and they looked even better. The shimmery rainbow effect looked fantastic, sometimes picking up the green of the jacket, sometimes complimenting it with a little bit of pink, but mostly toning it down with a subtle grey which looks much more smart than the white would have. I think I’ll be adding MOP buttons to all my garments forever now.

    • I’m a little envious – I had a light grey suit made from some Holland & Sherry linen but I stupidly had it done with horn buttons which I think thematically clash with the ‘South Pacific’ linen look . . .

      • Whats stopping from replacing the buttons ? A light grey mother of pearl seems pretty appropriate indeed !

      • If the buttons are light-coloured horn, that can look very nice. I wouldn’t recommend light grey mother of pearl, as dyed mother of pearl doesn’t look as good as natural colours. Either white or smoke mother of pearl would look good on a light grey linen suit.

      • I was talking about what you called smoke mother of pearl. Some are lighter than others.

      • Smoke mother of pearl is often called ‘black’ because it is quite dark. It’s rare for them to be lighter than mid grey, though they can look lighter when they reflect more light.

      • Indeed, I also recommend replacing the buttons yourself, Eddy! My jacket originally came with dark green plastic buttons and I took it upon myself to source some mother-of-pearl. The horn is probably still nice, but I’ll always recommend MOP now.

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