The Craft of Philippine Shell Inlay

     People are always surprised to learn our jewelry is made from seashells. Sometimes they think it's painted or laser cut shell laminates, but there's actually so much artisanal work that goes into each piece! So to clear matters up once and for all, I'm going to break down how our shell inlays are made.

(From left) The Urduja cuff and the Alunsina choker.

     We start with raw seashells. If you've read our previous posts on seashells (part 1, part 2), you'll know that we work with offcuts and waste from other industries.

(Above) Shell offcuts and waste. On the left, mother-of-pearl; right, paua abalone.

     First the seashells are cleaned, cut, and sorted according to size and colors needed. Since we're working with a natural material, it's impossible to get an exact color. Each shell has its own subtle color variation that changes as it gets sanded and polished. This used to drive me crazy because I can be such a perfectionist, but over time I've learned to accept it as one of the beautiful challenges of working with this material.

(Above) Shells are cut to size and sorted by color.

     Once that's done, our master artisans use the design pattern as a guide to create the inlay for our jewelry. The shells are further cut and carved by hand into the shapes of the design. I always think of this part as an extra complicated jigsaw puzzle, so much precision is needed to make sure each piece fits perfectly together!

(Above) Shell pieces are carved and arranged following the design pattern.

     When the shell pieces are laid into place, the inlay undergoes a final polishing to smoothen the shell and bring out its iridescence. And when that's done the inlay can finally be set into its metal component.

(Above, left) All the shell pieces are laid into place. The inlay undergoes a final cut and polished before it is set into the metal. (Right) The Mayari cuff.

     And that is how our shell inlays are made! The entire process is actually longer and more complex than what I've written in this oversimplified blog post. Here's a quick video to show how it's done:

     Creating our inlays, from sourcing the shells to cutting and polishing, could take up to a week to complete a single piece. Our artisans make it look easy but it takes a lot of skill, resourcefulness, years of training, not to mention patience, to do what they do. I hope this post –and our pieces– lets people recognize their unique Filipino talent and craft.

- Susanne


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