Button

Contributed by Birmingham Museums

80 separate processes were required to make a fancy pearl button.Making buttons out of shell was a specialist Birmingham industry, which dominated world production. In the 18th century, they were an expensive luxury, worn exclusively by men. Women's clothes were fastened with laces or hooks. Shell was imported from the South Pacific, Australia, Malaysia and the Americas, and great skill was needed to work it. The shell was fragile and up to 80 separate processes were required to make the best buttons. So much waste shell was produced that great pits were dug in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter to bury it. Many buildings today are said to have their foundations built on mother of pearl. This button was collected by a Birmingham jeweller in the 1780s and is a rare survivor. At its height more than 8000 people - mainly women and children - worked in the button industry but today only one pearl button maker is still in operation.

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