Contextual Analysis

Contextual analysis

Mother-of-pearl casket, Gujarat, India, 16th Century

Made of teak and overlaid with mother-of-pearl using ‘small gilded silver nails’[1], it can be suggested that this casket was to be made for local use or export to global markets such as Europe[2]. The style and techniques used in the Mother-of-pearl Casket can be speculated to be a mix of influences — from Europe due to the ‘finely engraved gilded silver appliqués on the sides’ and also traditional Gujarat. Mother-of-pearl as a material was attractive due to its iridescent quality. Caskets such as the one in focus were speculated to be used as reliquaries, or to store jewelry[3], while other sources mention that some of them may have been used just for display.


European presence in the Mughal Empire and Gujarat, India
Europe’s access to the Islamic World was mostly through trade. Portuguese, Dutch, English and French merchants made their way to the Empire in the late fifteenth century, enticed by the prosperity that could be attained by the export of luxury goods to the European market. They were supported by the Mughal and Safavid governments, which wanted trade partners to boost the economy. The Portuguese arrived in India in 1498, but the British, ‘under the aegis of the East India Company, would prove to be the chief force in the subcontinent.’

Indian arists in the Mughal empire acquired the techniques used of ‘modeling and spatial recession’ that they used in application to their own crafts via referencing the engravings of sixteenth century illustrated Bibles introduced by Jesuit missionaries.[4]

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Gujarat, in western India, was the main producer of a variety of objects inlaid or made with mother-of-pearl. The main attractiveness of mother-of-pearl was due to its iridescent quality. Gujarat was first named as the main produce of mother-of-pearl craft in 1502, in which on the African East Coast, the King of Melinde presented Vasco da Gama with “a Bedstead of Cambay, wrought with gold and mother-of-pearl, a very beautiful thing”. In the context of Europe, the mother-of-pearl from India made its debut in the royal collections of the Portuguese.[5]


Mother-of-pearl: origins and techniques

Mother-of-pearl is made of ‘thin, flat calcium-carbonate plates secreted by certain bivalve mollusks (as well as cuttlefish and snails) and arranged in layers around the inside of the shell.’ The luminous colors of the mother-of-pearl are the culmination of light refracted through the multiple layers of the plates. The most well-known source of mother-of-pearl is the large saltwater pearl oyster (Aricula margaritifera or Meleagrina margaritafera), found largely in the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, South China Sea, Celebes Sea and North Pacific Ocean at a depth of 10-70 metres.

Mother-of-Pearl is a soft, malleable material, and thus can be either dissolved in acid or hand carved, then ‘polished with abrasives or acid to regain its luster’.[6] The use of mother-of-pearl in carvings expanded after the mid-fifteenth century. Majority of works made with the material are ‘circular or polygonal in form, occasionally pierced or in the plique à jour style’.[7]  It can be speculated that the plique à jour style was used in the Mother-of-Pearl Casket, where the application of mother-of-pearl is in cells on top of the base backing made out of wood. The material could be applied to a variety of surfaces as it was durable and strong enough to be laid in pieces over a wooden body or could be used to produce smaller items such as cups and bowls.

Gujarat’s mother-of-pearl can be grouped in two classifications. The Casket in focus is classified in the first group – objects with are either made of wood, with inlays of mother-of-pearl over the entire structure. The second group consists of objects made of wood and ‘covered with a dark mastic inset with pieces of mother-of-pearl in vegetal, geometric and, less frequently, figurative designs.’ From a close examination of physical objects from both groups, it can be said that the two techniques of the groups influenced each other and may have been made in the same location; ‘that there exists a small group of objects that has both mastic-inset and overlaid mother-of-pearl also suggests that craftsmen working in the two techniques collaborated or deliberately worked in each others’ style.’ [8]


Other similar objects of interest made in Gujarat, India

Tortoiseshell casket, 16th century, Gujarat, India

Like the mother-of-pearl casket, this tortoiseshell casket was made in Gujarat, India in the same era. The casket is crafted with tortoiseshell, which are linked together by ‘vertical bands of silver mounts around the body’. Similarities can be drawn between this tortoiseshell casket and the mother-of-pearl casket – both caskets have similar features: the apparent European influences derived from their rectangular body and lid, as well as silver appliqués on the sides. Similar to the mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell articles were a ‘specialty of Gujarat in western India’ and they functioned as reliquaries as well.


The European influences apparent in caskets made in Gujarat suggest that most caskets were used as exports to global markets, especially to Europe and Portugal. The caskets had multiple functions – for display, jewelry storage and as reliquaries to store precious religious objects. As such, they were of prized luxury articles and were highly likely commissioned by royalty or churches of those markets.


[1] Asian Civilisation Museum. Mother-of-pearl casket.

[2] V&A Collections. Casket.

[3] Asian Civilisation Museum. Mother-of-pearl casket.

[4] Metmuseum. “Europe and the Islamic World, 1600- 1800.”
Accessed 10 November 2018. Retrieved from

[5] V&A Collections.  Casket.

[6] Slatner-Prückl, Michaela. “Mother-of-pearl”. Grove Art Online.
Accessed 10 November 2018. Retrieved from

[7] Slatner-Prückl. “Mother-of-pearl”

[8] V&A Collections.  Casket.



Mother-of-Pearl Casket

Tortoiseshell Casket

Slatner-Prückl, Michaela. “Mother-of-pearl”. Grove Art Online.
Accessed 10 November 2018. Retrieved from

Metmuseum. “Europe and the Islamic World, 1600- 1800.”
Accessed 10 November 2018. Retrieved from

Göttler, C. and Mochizuki, M. “The Nomadic Object: The Challenge of World for Early Modern Religious Art” pp 400
Accessed 1 November 2018. Retrieved from

Carvalho, Pedro M. “What Happened to the Mughal Furniture? The Role of the Imperial Workshops, the Decorative Motifs Used, and the Influence of Western Models”
Accessed 1 November 2018.
Retrieved from

V&A Collections. Casket.

V&A Collections. Tortoiseshell Casket.

Week 9: Free Writing

Mother-of-pearl casket, Gujarat, India, 16th Century

Short Term Goal:
Understanding the history and cultural symbolism behind the use of mother-of-pearl as a main material for the making of the casket, the origins and the appeal of the use of mother-of-pearl in such objects. Insight to be gained upon researching the techniques used with mother-of-pearl, and how objects similar to the casket are made with it. Emphasis will be placed with regards to analysis on the functions of the casket.

Long Term Goal:
Further analysis on the use of mother-of-pearl in the context of noble/royal families, and research on what type of items were stored in the casket and similar objects (valuables, jewelry, reliquaries for religious items). Exploring the possible thought processes behind the use of mother-of-pearl by artisans and craftsmen, or the influences and motivations behind the commissioner who requested for mother-of-pearl objects to be made. With the information gained, connections will be made between the functions of the casket and similar objects of the modern era. Drawing such connections will in return, allow the targeted audience to understand and have a feel for the casket.


Free Writing

The casket is made of teak and covered with mother-of-pearl plaques held in place by small gilded silver nails. The lock is made with openwork silver, with leaves and scrolls. The central plaque is embellished with engravings and niello, of rich floral motifs. One of the most attractive aspects of this piece is the magnificent quality of the mother-of-pearl plaques which have a natural pinkish-blue hue. The finely engraved gilded silver appliqués on the sides are later added and exhibits a strong European influences. This casket may have been made to store valuables such as jewellery, but were sometimes also used as reliquaries for religious items.[1]

The Portuguese in India were the first of the European colonisers to appreciate the skill of Indian craftsmen and sponsored an export trade in works of art, very often copying European originals. They catered in particular for the vogue in 16th-century princely collections for objects – gaming-boards, drinking vessels, ewers and basins, caskets and even shields – decorated with oriental mother-of-pearl set in black lacquer, which were often given mounts of precious metal. Caskets such as this were particularly in demand in Habsburg Europe as reliquaries, and many of their mounts bear the marks of Augsburg, Nuremberg and Leipzig goldsmiths.[2]

During the 16th and 17th Centuries, examples of mother-of-pearl inlaid artefacts were imported into Portugal from India and found themselves in many royal households of Europe, including Henry VIII as recorded upon his death in 1547, however few examples of comparable caskets are known to have survived. One such small chest is in the Ashmolean Museum, and the Victoria & Albert museum exhibited an example in the 1986 during an exhibition titled “The Indian Heritage: Court Life and Arts Under Mughal Rule’. Traditionally made in Gujarat from the shell of the Turbo marmoratus, a nocturnal snail, these beautiful objets were also highly prized by the Mughal Emperors of India.[3]

Jan Huyghen Van Linschoten in his ‘Voyage aux Indes Orientales’ writes about the Gujarati artisans in the 1580’s ‘They make also al sortes of deskes, cubboards, coffers, boxes and a thousand such like devises inlaid and wrought with mother of pearl which are carried throughout al India, especially to Goa and Cochin, against the time that the Portingals Shippes (come) thether to take in their lading’.
Mother of pearl fashioned from the shell of a nocturnal snail ‘Turbo Marmoratus’ was a favoured material at the Mughal court. These luxurious, exotic articles were made in Gujarat in western India and equally prized in the Indian and European courts. The Portuguese commissioned many articles exporting them to the Middle East and to Europe as precious novelties, and they were often prominently featured in ‘Wunderkammer’. The Dresden ‘Green Vault’ still preserves examples from the 16th and 17th centuries. Although produced in traditional Western shapes, the delicate mother of pearl articles were never intended to be used for anything other than ostentatious display.[4]

Although this casket is not dated or signed, it can confidently be said to have been made in the mother-of-pearl workshops of Gujarat in western India about 1600. At that time, Gujarati mother-of-pearl articles were being made for local consumption as well as for different export markets, including Ottoman Turkey, the Middle East and Europe. In those regions, articles in mother-of-pearl were avidly collected and prized, due to their luminescent and lustrous surfaces and the beauty of their design.[5]

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Gujarat, in western India, was the centre of production of a range of articles decorated with or fashioned out of mother-of-pearl. The principal appeal of mother-of-pearl, a substance found in thin layers on the inside of certain shells (most particularly Turbo marmoratus), lay in its lustrous and iridescent surface. Articles made from the material reflected light and glowed in pretty shades of pink and green. The material was also versatile; it was sufficiently strong and stable as to be applied in pieces over a wooden carcass as a veneer, or could be used alone in the construction of smaller articles such as bowls and cups.

Gujarat is first mentioned as the centre of mother-of-pearl work in 1502, in which year the King of Melinde, on the East Coast of Africa, presented Vasco da Gamawith ‘a bedstead of Cambay, wrought with gold and mother of pearl, a very beautiful thing’. In the European context, Indian mother-of-pearl first makes its appearance in Portuguese royal collections. A list of Manuel I’s (1469-1521) wardrobe made in 1522 included, among other things, ‘a casket from India inlaid with mother-of-pearl with eighteen sheets of silver’, while in 1529 Francis I of France (1494-1547) purchased a chair and bed made in India, which were ‘marquete a feillage de nacle de perle… vernissee de noir et enrichie de feuillages et figures dor’.

Gujarati mother-of-pearl can be classified into two groups. The first, to which this casket belongs, consists of articles made of wood and covered with a dark mastic inset with pieces of mother-of-pearl in vegetal, geometric and, less frequently, figurative designs. The second group consists of objects which are either constructed entirely from pieces of mother-of-pearl; or constructed of wood, entirely overlaid with pieces of mother-of-pearl. A physical examination of the objects themselves suggests that the two groups were influenced by one another and possibly even made in the same place; similarities are evident not only in the forms that were manufactured, but also in design and methods of construction. That there exists a small group of objects that has both mastic-inset and overlaid mother-of-pearl decoration also suggests that craftsmen working in the two techniques collaborated or deliberately worked in each others style.