The button has long been a favoured, decorative feature in fashion for both men and women, with the pearl button adding exclusivity and desirability to garments for both. John F. Boepple originally founded the first freshwater pearl button factory in Iowa, United States in 1891, following a craftsman upbringing with horn and shell button products, both of which were popular imports of the United States of America throughout the 19th century.
Originally sourced from the Mississippi river and similar freshwater rivers, Boepple's pearl button business popularised, enhancing the allure of local, natural product.
Today the trade has returned to the sea with companies and bespoke tailors alike relying on pearl farming from the Southern Hemisphere as production for embellished clothing.
Saville Row tailors today work with the same care and precision as always, sourcing the finest mother of pearl buttons for their bespoke shirts and suits: a discrete, luxury offering that reflects the workmanship of each brand. "All of our shirts are finished with pearl buttons. They're important as they finish off the quality of our shirts," says Peter Smith of Huntsman tailors on Savile Row. "Pearl buttons look elegant and compliment our handmade shirts. Customers look for this key detail as it is synonymous with Huntsman, the service we provide and our luxury appeal."
The pearl industry today is valued at a staggering $120m with over 185 square nautical miles of pearl farms distributed across Western Australia: the largest pearl producer in the world. The pearl culture here is recognised as among the most environmentally friendly, however with an increased demand for pearls, and a 20-24 month farming time, concerns have been raised for the resources.
"We love to use the pearl button simply for its unique character," commented Dominic Sebag-Montefiore, head tailor at Edward Sexton. "The pearl offers a quality that synthetic buttons cannot. We source our pearls from Australia, however over the last year we have had concerns for it's sustainability."
Produced by a multitude of mollusk species, the pearl has incredible durability: it is 3,000 times more fracture resistant than the mineral from (aragonite) from which it is made. A silky organic substance is released by the mollusk during production, ensuring the pearl stays strong and flexible. Each nacre is unique however (similar to snowflakes) and so the final material is brittle; the natural quality has a tendency to break once made into a button.
"There is a wonderful tactile engagement when you wear a bespoke shirt finished with pearl buttons," says Dominic. "The downfall is that they snap very easily if forced through the button hole."
Oysters clean their surrounding waters 24/7 and the final quality of a pearl very much depends on the quality of the environment it is produced in; continuity and caliber of pearl produced through farming is vital for tailors. Farmed miles from populated or tourist areas and highly reliant on active tides, the holding tanks float on the surface for up to two years as the pearls develop.
"The advantage of using a real pearl button is its unique, iridescent quality; there is a great softness and luxury associated with the colour and shine," says Dominic. "A white button is too harsh and a blue button just looks cheap. Pearl is a perfect compliment to our blue and pink striped shirts."
Social and charitable group: the Pearly Kings and Queens of East London have no worry about pearl button supply: for them, dressing head to toe in the ornament is daily routine. "I am so proud of my buttons," says Pearly Queen Margaret Hemsley. "Old pearl buttons are thicker and stronger; most are gifted to me from the public."
Inspired by the market traders and 'Costermongers' of Somers Town, London in 1875, road sweeper Henry Croft began the tradition in aid of charity and the less fortunate. Recognised today as the 30 pearly families, members dress in smother suits: each suit features thousands of hand-sewn pearl buttons, weighing up to 30kg.
"I source most of my pearl buttons from Ebay which get sourced from all over the world," says Clive Bennett, the pearly King of Woolwich. "I have buttons from America, France, China and of course from all over the UK. The mother-of-pearl mostly comes from China: each button is a symbol of romanticism, tradition, art and personal fun," Clive added.
Farming sees that the pearls are tentatively produced; without this setup, many pearl producing oysters would be extinct. As the pearl buttons' fragility and profitability increases, the sustainability of its supplies becomes ever more prominent. "The beauty is that a pearl button will reflect the colour of any shirt at all given moments," says Dominic.
Whoever knew this unsung detail would enlist such consideration and merit?