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by Layna Palmer, Wire-Sculpture.com

Today's Gem Profile is...

Nautilus, Abalone, Paua,
& Pinctada Maxima:

The Cephalopods, Bivalves, and Gastropods’ Shells used in Jewelry

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Ah, spring! My tulips and daffodils are starting to come up and the air has that warmth to it that is a welcome change from the winter cold. Now I just have to start worrying about snails coming out to eat the garden. Speaking of snails, I think we will start this week’s Gem Profile on Cephalopods and the Mother of Pearl that comes from them.

Sterling Silver Wire Wrapped Abalone Shell Pendant by Cindy Massey

Cindy Massey picked this abalone shell up in Alaska, and wrapped it into a pendant with sterling silver wire.

Cephalopods: Nautilus and Ammonites

Cephalopods are a class of mollusks that include octopuses, squid, cuttlefish, nautiloidea or Nautilus, and fossils like Ammonite and belemnite. Obviously octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish don’t have the ability to give us mother-of-pearl (MOP) because they don’t have a shell, but the Nautilus has a smooth inner shell that has little or no banding with a beautiful iridescence very similar to pearls and is used for the white MOP faces on watches.

Australian Shell Necklace by Karen McCoun

Karen McCoun made this shell necklace for a friend, who brought her these shells from Australia

Nautiluses are found in the warm waters of the southwest Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, and off the coast of Australia. Nautilus shells are spiral with pockets throughout them that hold oxygen and nitrogen; giving them some buoyancy in water… they don’t sink. The Nautiluses are free-swimming predatory creatures that swim through the water by “jet propulsion,” feeding on crustaceans. They are fairly unattractive, but they do give us some beautiful material from their shells, and their fossilized ancestors are highly prized for their opalescence and beauty.

Mother of pearl wire wrapped leaf pendant necklace by Dena Ellison

A carved mother of pearl pendant in the shape of a leaf is the centerpiece of this mother of pearl necklace by Dena Ellison

Bivalves: Mussels, Pinctada Maxima, and Oysters

Next are Bivalves, or Bivalvia, which include clams, mussels, oysters and scallops. These are the two-shelled creatures whose shells are hinged on one side, and open on the other. Scallops are swimmers, but we don’t use them for MOP – but they’re good to eat! In jewelry, we use oysters and mussels from this family.

Mother of pearl bracelet and necklace set by Tamera Crosby

Tamera Crosby created this light necklace and bracelet set with a large, palm-sized shell and mother-of-pearl chip beads.

Oysters not only give us pearls, but they are a huge source of MOP in the jewelry industry. Pinctada Maxima is another type of oyster that produces some of the finest pearls in the world. South Sea pearls come from the pinctada maxima and the nacre color of the MOP is the same color as the pearl within. These mollusks are very large and easier to cultivate than other oysters so the nucleus used as cultivation for South Sea pearls can be larger. Mussels also give us pearls and are the source of freshwater pearls and MOP.

Mother of Pearl Pendant by Rodger McKown

Rodger McKown wrapped this mother of pearl pendant in square gold wire with silver half-round bindings, with accent beads to match the iridescent shell.

What a way to recycle! The food industry uses the meat of oysters and mussels then passes the shells on to the jewelers for MOP inlays, jewelry and other decorative items. Shells from bivalves are also used as a dietary supplement for poultry and as calcium supplements for humans. Crushed shells are used to remove heavy metals from water in areas like the Persian Gulf and the live animals can act as biofilters in some areas as well.

Mother of pearl donut pendant wire wrapped by Dena Ellison

Dena Ellison wrapped this mother of pearl donut into a pendant, accenting with pastel beads.

These shells are also a symbol of St. James and the Roman myth recounts that Venus, the goddess of love, was born from the shell of a bivalve. In my own garden, I have a birdbath in the shape of a clam and have used shells on several of the stepping stones around my yard too. Look around and you will find the bivalve in many of the symbols we see every day.

Gastropods: Paua and Abalone Shells

Now we get to the gastropods, or gastropoda mollusk. Gastropods are a very scientific name for a snail or slug. I know, I hate them too; they eat my garden and are just generally icky, although escargot is not bad. Gastropods are recognized by having a “foot” reaching out of their shell, which they use to cling to rocks and surfaces.

Blue paua shell pendant wrapped in gold filled wire by Teresa McMahon

Teresa McMahon wrapped this blue paua shell with gold filled wire into a beautiful pendant.

Gastropods, as icky as they are, contain a huge number of species – second only to insects in number. For this conversation, we will be focusing mostly on abalone.

Blister pearl pendant wrapped in blue and silver wire by Rodger McKown

Rodger McKown wrapped this blister pearl in blue and silver round twisted wire, to match his wife’s blouse for their grandson’s wedding!

Abalone is the generic name for the many species of the genus Haliotis (no, they don’t have bad breath). Paua (pronounced pow-a) is the name the Maori people gave to this large edible sea snail that lives in the shallow coastal waters along the rocky coast of New Zealand. In the United States and Australia, we call them abalone, but the United Kingdom calls them ormer shells. Abalone are also found on rocky coastlines in shallow water where they cling to the rocks with a “foot” and feed on seaweed… see, all snails like green stuff! (Click here to see a picture of a growing abalone, photo by Genny Anderson)

Paua grow very large and have strict rules on their harvest. In New Zealand, “wild” paua are only to be harvested by free diving (read: no scuba equipment), and in restricted numbers per day. Similar restrictions are in place along the coast of California, where poaching abalone is strictly prohibited, and can be very dangerous. New Zealand also has a burgeoning industry of paua farms, which are located throughout the country.

Wire wrapped paua shell pendant by Dena Ellison

Dena Ellison wrapped this paua shell into a pendant – and if you could see the back, there’s a charoite cab on the back, making it reversible!

Paua farmers raise the critters for their meat and shells, which are exported primarily to the United States and Asian markets. Paua farming can be expensive to set up and maintain due to the size and activity level of the mollusk. Farming helps not only with supply of meat and shells, but also helps prevent overfishing, and produces a higher quality of product.

Paua, or abalone, shells are used in jewelry making, and can also be dyed or tinted to a rainbow of colors that are enhanced by the iridescence of the nacre which creates the shells. The shells have also been used throughout history in rites and rituals throughout the world, most notably in Native American rituals and Maori ceremonial masks and rites.

Red Paua shell wire wrapped pendant by Joan Madouse

Joan Madouse wrapped this red paua shell pendant in silver-filled wire.

Paua shells, noted for their banded rainbow colors, can also create pearls. Paua pearls, or blue pearls, are formed when a small irritant like a grain of sand gets between the mollusk and its shell. Similar to a mabe pearl (a half-round pearl), the blue pearl is the iridescence of the paua MOP and highly prized for its beauty. Blue pearl production is highly controlled on paua farms so as not to stress the animal to maximize the beauty of the pearls.

Peggy Marzano's wire wrapped blue paua shell pendant

Peggy Marzano wrapped this paua shell cabochon into a pendant – and it sold!

Though writing about abalone and MOP has given me a little more respect for the lowly snail, I still don’t like it in my garden, but I love the look of Mother of Pearl and will use it more in my jewelry! I think next week we’ll take a look at the other types of mollusks like conch and cowries, and the beads and shells we use from them as well.

Do you have conch shells you’ve collected from the beach, or jewelry you’ve made from cowrie shells? Send pictures our way at tips@wire-sculpture.com and they could be featured next week when we talk about conch and cowry shells!

Resources & Recommended Reading

Gem Profile by Layna Palmer

Click to Receive Daily Tips by Email

by Rose Marion, Wire-Sculpture.com

I can’t help but be disctracted by the beautiful weather outside lately! Here in northern Utah, it’s a balmy 72 degrees with light gusts of wind. The trees have buds on them, which glowed green under a blanket of snow last week – but the snow’s gone now, and the earth’s dried out. Just a beautiful spring day with nature screaming to be looked at!

Why not turn to nature today for jewelry inspiration? The flowers are starting to come out – white, purple, and gold crocuses, even some roses are in bloom. Of course, flowers are a natural inspiration for wire artists, since many of us have our own gardens or just love to match the beauty of flowers.

Albina Manning created these pretty Spring Flower Earrings:

Spring Earrings

And Jill Gentry made a daisy pendant with a little craft wire, these would be beautiful pendants for you to give as gifts:

Daisy flower

You can also wire wrap a stone that’s reminiscent of flowers. Flower cameos are inexpensive but beautiful. For those with expensive taste, here’s a John Dyer stone I saw in Tucson – the back is cut to show the petals in this irradiated Lime Citrine – my photography doesn’t do it justice, click the image below to see a much better-quality photo!
Lime citrine cut by John Dyer, photo by Rose Marion for Wire-Sculpture.com

Leaves are also inspirational: these 2 leaf pieces are part of our Free Email Jewelry Patterns series. By Albina Manning:

ALbina Manning Birch Earrings

by Dale “Cougar” Armstrong:

Malachite Leaf by Dale Cougar Armstrong

And we couldn’t ignore garden visitors! Here’s two artists’ take on a visiting butterfly:

Wire woven earrings amethyst stalactite slice

And of course, every successful garden has to have a bee. Dale teaches her original wire pin in the Intermediate Series.

Wire buzzy bee pin by Dale Armstrong

That reminds me of another animal I’ve seen in wire. In Tucson, I met a man who had discovered a horse’s head carved from turquoise. The horse was turned to the side, and had its teeth slightly parted, and had a nice long neck. This man devised a bit and harness for the horse using twisted gold wire, and created a bail for the horse pendant. What a cool idea, for a cabochon that would be hard to wrap in a standard frame!

A fun animal to wrap – yes, it’s a real animal there! – is the orthoceras cabochons you willl find in Tucson. These sea creatures are stunning.

Orthoceras cabochon photographed by Rose Marion for Wire-Sculpture.com

Just as stunning are ammonites and ammolites:

Ammonite Specimens

I hope this trip through organic nature will help you find jewelry-making inspiration this spring! I’d love to hear what your favorite nature inspirations are this time of year. Happy jewelry making!

Gem Profile Nov. 4: Ammolite

by Dale “Cougar” Armstrong, Wire-Sculpture.com

Daily Wire Jewelry Making Tip for
November 4, 2011

Today's Gem Profile is...


As promised in my Gem Profile about opalized fossils, this week we’ll learn a bit about one of my favorite gemstones, Ammolite! Before I get into exactly what ammolite is, I first have to give you a brief background on the ammonite.

Ammonite Specimens

A selection of fossilized ammonites. Notice the mother-of-pearl shell on the bottom-right. Private collection, Dale Armstrong.


A member of the mollusk family, the term ammonite covers a wide variety of invertebrate marine animals, which are now extinct. Although they resemble the present-day nautilus, these animals were more like modern squid, cuttlefish, and the octopus, but their shell was on the outside. The word ammonite means “Ammon’s Stones,” and was given to fossil shells whose wrinkled whorls look like the ram’s horns that often appeared on the Egyptian god, Ammon. Most ammonites were small- to medium-sized animals, but some reached enormous sizes of up to 5 1/2 feet across!

The shell of an ammonite is divided up into chambers, and many varieties are found with defined joints in their shell that are called sutures. These amazing, free-swimming creatures abundantly populated all of the earth’s oceans and seas for several million years, before becoming extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period; therefore ammonites are not considered rare, except for one type that is only found in one location on earth.

Pyritized Split Ammonite

A pyritized, split ammonite wire pendant, accented with Tennessee freshwater pearls by Dale Cougar Armstrong.

In the Bear Paw geological formation of the Canadian Rockies of Alberta, Canada, there is a fabulous ammonite that resembles opal! This special material is called Ammolite, which has been said to be the most rare gemstone on our planet. Ammolite really isn’t a type of opal or even a fossil; rather it is a natural, reconstituted mineral or a mineralized shell. This classification comes from the fact that the shell of an ammonite has not petrified or fossilized, but it has been transformed.

Freeform ammolite cabochons

Freeform ammolite cabochons, waiting to be wire wrapped. Entranced, I spent almost my entire budget on ammolite one year! (The pen cap is for size comparison.) Private collection, Dale Armstrong.

Ammonite and ammolite

By combining an ammonite with an ammolite, Dale Cougar Armstrong created this pendant titled: "Ancient History" in 14k gold filled and Argentium wire.

Relatively new to the gemstone world, ammolite was recognized by the Colored Stones Commission in 1981 as one of only three organic gemstones; the other two being amber and pearl. The calcium carbonate that composed an ammonites shell, is the same material that forms the nacre of a pearl. During geological processes, this material transformed into a type of aragonite, resembling a mica-like substance, with many, many layers on the matrix, which is usually a dark brown or gray to black jasper-like or slate material. As such, ammolite is very soft, registering only about a 3.5 to 4 on Mohs scale, and to be used as a lapidary material it needs to be stabilized. One type of stabilization is to force epoxy into the many layers, fusing them together. Another way is to make the featured specimen into either a doublet or a triplet, and sometimes a whole ammolite fossil is simple protected by a simple layer of acrylic coating to protect the specimen for display purposes. All ammolite on the market for jewelry-making has been stabilized.

ammolite specimens

A wonderful display of ammolite cabochons and specimens for sale at the Tucson gem shows in 2009.

The iridescent colors of ammolite are truly spectacular! Vivid shades of red, orange, violet, gold, green and blue completely cover huge masses of the shell. Unlike opal, the play of color that ammolite displays does not shift, rather the diversity of color depends on how many layers thick the aragonite is. The most common colors are shades of red and gold, while the more rare are blues and greens. Due to the way the aragonite formed, many pieces of ammolite resemble what one might think of when imagining the skin of a mythological dragon, making it a very artistic stone to be used in jewelry designs.

Although ammolite can occasionally be found in the states of Montana and Wyoming, the best gem-quality only comes from Alberta, on land that belongs to the Blackfoot Native Americans. Those who mine this intense stone, need to have special licenses and permission from the Blackfoot, making ammolite their main source of income. This goes along with the history of ammolite and the Blackfoot. Their legends tell the tale of a special woman who found an ammolite in the middle of a harsh winter, when the tribe was all but starving. A spirit told her to bring it back to bringing it her camp, where people were in awe of the stone and held a buffalo ceremony. The next day a huge herd of buffalo arrived, saving the tribe, which led to the Blackfoot calling this stone “Inskim” or “buffalo stone.”

Freeform ammolite

A freeform green ammolite cabochon with a sapphire accent, made into a wire pendant by Dale Cougar Armstrong, titled: Dragon's Tear.

Metaphysically, folks still look to ammolite for the special properties of healing and good luck, as well as a good stone for meditation as it is said to radiate positive Earth energies.

Next week, we will learn a bit about a stone of a two totally different colors, charoite. Have you made wire jewelry with Charoite before? Email pictures to tips@wire-sculpture.com, and they could be featured!


Print Resources:

  • Gem and Lapidary Materials by June Culp Zeitner, ISBN 0-945005-24-5
  • Love is in the Earth by Melody, ISBN 0-9628190-3-4
  • The Fossil Book by P.V. Rich, T.H. Rich, M.A. Fenton, and C.L. Fenton, ISBN 0-486-29371-8

Internet Resources:

Gem Profile by Dale “Cougar” Armstrong

Click to Receive Daily Tips by Email


Gem Profile Oct. 21: Opalized Fossils

Daily Wire Jewelry Making Tip for
October 21, 2011

Today's Gem Profile is...

Opalized Fossils
one of a series, Mystifying Opals

This article is one of a six-part series on Opal. Here is a complete list of our Opal articles: An Opal Introduction, Common Opal, Black Precious Opal, White Precious Opal, Opalized Fossils, Boulder Opal

Opalized Fossils

When thinking about opal of any kind, we usually visualize some of the beautiful material photographed for our previous opal articles. But did you know that opal not only forms in the seams, vugs, and cracks of matrix rock, but that it can be found as fossils? Let’s begin by clarifying what a fossil is. Basically a fossil is the prehistoric, physical proof of life before recorded human history. Generally this covers animals and plants that have been “turned to stone” or “petrified,” as well traces of early life like footprints and charred wood.

I think the best description comes from The Fossil Book; “fossils are the remains or traces of organisms that lived during past geologic times and were buried in rocks that accumulated in the earth’s outer portion, or crust.” For the purposes of this particular article, I will be talking mainly about petrified and “cast” remains.

A “cast” fossil formed when an organic material, such as a tree limb or shell, had been trapped in sediment (sand and clay, or volcanic ash and mud) that dried out and became firm. Eventually the organic object decayed and dissolved, leaving a cavity or natural mold. Later, rainwater containing materials such as silica filled the mold, and when the liquid evaporated, a “cast” was created. In certain parts of the world, these casts are often found as opal, and can be called “opalized fossils”.

Both Australia and Nevada, USA have locations that are well known for their opalized fossils finds. In Coober Pedy, Australia these items are more commonly clam, mussel and snail shells, where silica-rich water seeped into the organism as it was decaying, filling the clam’s cavity and replacing the calcium shell as it dissolved. Often part of the original shell is present on the opalized fossil specimen. (Click here and scroll to the bottom to see an opalized cockle shell.) The fossils that have opalized in Nevada are found as petrified wood casts, some of which are said to show amazing detail of the original wood, in a variety of colors, including the “black” that Virgin Valley is known for. Click here and scroll down to see an example of opalized petrified wood, captioned “Petrified Wood with Precious Opal,” from Virgin Valley, Nevada. Opalized wood can also be found in other North American locations such as New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona.

Opalized Wood Cabochon

Opalized wood from New Mexico, cabbed by Charlie Armstrong and made into a gold-filled wire pendant by Dale Cougar Armstrong, accented with amethyst.

The definition of a fossil has been disputed for years, and as the Lightning Ridge area of Australia claims to have the only “black” fossil opal in the world, obviously they do not think of Nevada’s opalized wood as a fossil. However, because of the amazing array of opalized fossils that are found there, they can justify being a bit biased. In prehistoric times this part of Australia was under an inland sea. Now a hot and dry desert, miners dig amazing fossils, quite a few of which have been opalized. These specimens include many different items such as dinosaur and shark’s teeth, a variety of sea shells, pinecones, crocodiles, turtles, an array of marine fishes, and even opalized reptile/dinosaur skin! Can you imagine being able to dig up the fossilized skeleton of a plesiosaur or a dog shark and find that it was opalized?! Amazing. Of course, a lot of good specimens are damaged during their excavation as miners are looking for opals with color and a lot of the fossil remains are common opal. This area of Australia includes the opal fields and towns of Coober Pedy, Lightning Ridge, White Cliffs, Andamooka, Mintabie, and Lambina.

For some stunning examples of opalized fossils from the Australian Museum, please click the following links: This dinosaur tooth is a fine example of an opalized fossil from Australia, and this opalized dinosaur toe, found in New South Wales, is 8cm (3 inches) long!

Pineapple Opal

There is an extremely rare form of opal known as a “pineapple” that can resemble an opalized fossil pinecone. Actually it is a pseudomorph of glauberite, where the original mineral decayed and was replaced by opal, and it is the most valuable opal in the world! This unusual form of opal is occasionally found in the White Cliffs and Gemville areas of Australia and, believe it or not, this is the most valuable opal formation in the world! Click here to see several pineapple opal examples from White Cliffs.

Ammolite Pendant

"Dragon's Eye", an ammolite joined to a cat's eye tourmaline, created in 14k solid gold wire by Dale Cougar Armstrong.


I know that ammolite is not really opal, but it because is “opal-like” and a lot of folks haven’t been told the difference, I am just going to touch on it here. Often mistakenly labeled “opalized ammonite”, the ammonite shell is actually composed of a form of aragonite. No opal content whatsoever! (I will explain more about this amazing and relatively “new” gemstone in my Ammolite Gem Profile) Some of the confusion comes from the fact that one of the largest mining operations of ammolite is named Korite, which is the same name as a boulder opal from Australia. This ties into my next Gem Profile: boulder opals, which will be the last segment in this Mystifying Opal series. Have you ever wire wrapped boulder opal? Email pictures to tips@wire-sculpture.com, and they could be featured!


Print Resources:

  • Gemstones of the World by Walter Schumann, ISBN 0-8069-3088-8
  • Minerals of the World by Walter Schumann, ISBN 0-8069-8570-4
  • Opals by Fred Ward, ISBN 1887651047
  • The Fossil Book by P.V. Rich, T.H. Rich, M.A. Fenton, and C.L. Fenton, ISBN 0-486-29371-8
  • The World of Opals by Allan W. Eckert, ISBN 0471133973

Internet Resources:

Gem Profile by Dale "Cougar" Armstrong

Find Opal on Wire-Sculpture.com
Opal Beads Opalite Beads
Shop Opal Beads Shop Opalite Beads

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