Not your grandmother's pearl buttons
Published: February 19, 2009
Many button collectors, particularly those in France where I live, love old buttons -- the older the better. Like many of their American counterparts, these collectors often overlook the diversity and beauty of new buttons that are readily available in shops today. Just like earlier examples, many new buttons are miniature works of art that combine materials, decorative finishes, and working methods in often new and surprising ways.
Two black and white buttons, engraved patterns
Three engraved buttons: (clockwise from top) gilded, pierced, dyed
Four dyed and engraved buttons: (clockwise from top left) floral, bird carrying a ring, geometric design, imitation fabric (lace)
As an introduction to these 21st century examples of the button maker's art, let's take a closer look at buttons made of mother-of-pearl, a quintessential button material. Anyone who has run her fingers through the treasures in her grandmother's button box has surely been drawn to the shimmering iridescence of even the simplest pearl buttons. Mother-of-pearl -- the lining of the shells of various mollusks -- has been one of the most versatile and widely used materials in the history of button making. It can be carved, engraved, dyed, pierced, painted, and more.
Button makers have exploited this adaptability for centuries, first in buttons made individually by hand and, after the industrial revolution, in buttons that were turned out by factories in the millions. Many of these same techniques are used today with amazingly modern results.
One of the most widely used techniques is laser engraving. Traditionally, pearl buttons were engraved by hand or through an acid etching process to create an intricate pattern of fine lines that could be filled with pigment. The result was a crisp, finely detailed image or pattern. Such processes would be far too costly and time-consuming today. Thus, an automated process of laser engraving is used. Beautiful buttons with detailed designs can be produced in quantities large enough to meet the requirements of today's fashion industry for high-quality, attractive buttons at reasonable prices.
Some buttons made using this process have a traditional look: geometric patterns or flowing arabesques filled in with black dye on a natural white pearl background, for example. Other buttons show a reverse of the process, with the design engraved into a dyed button to create a pattern or an image in white on a colored background. Some buttons combine engraving with other techniques, such as piercing, or with finishes, such as gilding, to create striking designs.
These buttons come in an amazing variety of designs for everyone's taste and budget. All the buttons pictured with this article were purchased at sewing or craft shops in Paris for under $10 each; many were under $5. These shops add new designs to their product lines once or twice every year, so these buttons offer an ever-growing area to be explored by collectors or anyone else who loves beautiful buttons!
|Matthew is a member of the National Button Society and Fibule, the French button collectors' club. He has lived in France for 15 years, the last six of which he has spent combing Paris shops, fleamarkets, and country antiques fairs for unusual buttons. He can be reached at email@example.com.|