Antique Mother-Of-Pearl Gaming Tokens And Where To Find Them

About collecting antique mother-of-pearl gaming tokens: history, how they were made, and the material, mother-of-pearl (nacre), itself. It also lists places to buy these items.

Most of us are familiar with gaming tokens, though we may not call them that. These days, the most common gaming tokens are the ones we call chips, which are used mostly for keeping track of money while playing card games. The everyday chips that you and I might use for our Wednesday night poker game are ridged plastic, made so that they can stack easily, and come in a variety of colors; however, casino chips are a whole other ballgame. Since they have to be durable, most are made either of metal or of an amalgam of plastic and metal, and have the heft and feel of real coins. Usually, however, they're worth much more -- sometimes more than their weight in gold.

In the old days before poker and slot machines took over the gaming industry, tokens were used not just for card games but also for board games, various games of chance, and any other one-on-one game that required that either points or money be kept track of. These tokens were usually made of durable natural materials, particularly before the age of mechanization, and often those materials were chosen for their inherent beauty. Common token materials were bone, ivory, wood and even clay, both adorned and plain. One common and inexpensive material that was used throughout the world was nacre, better known as mother-of-pearl.

Mother-of-pearl is the iridescent inner layer of a mollusk shell. The thickest (and thus more durable) mother-of-pearl is harvested from robust marine shells, such as oyster and abalone. Depending on the lighting, mother-of-pearl can come in a variety of colors, but its base color is usually milky-white, silvery-gray, gray-blue, or pinkish. Not only is mother-of-pearl fairly inexpensive, it is hard, crack-resistant, attractive, and takes polishing well. However, making items from it -- whether they're beads, inlay, cameos, watch faces, or gaming tokens -- requires much skill and patience.

One of the things that make mother-of-pearl gaming tokens so desirable as collector's items is their beauty. Not only is the material naturally gorgeous, tokens are often wrought into fanciful creatures or shapes, and etched with intricate designs. Particularly striking are the tokens made in France and the Orient (especially China); both these are cultures that have traditionally valued the beautiful along with the utilitarian. Although you'll find many disk-shaped, lozenge-shaped, or rectangular tokens with a minimum of decoration, you'll more see tokens that have been carved in the shapes of fish, animals, moons, suns, and just about any other form the artisans could come up with. Some might be nearly indistinguishable from mother-of-pearl items used for other purposes: for example, there are lovely, multi-armed mother-of-pearl pieces shaped like snowflakes that are used as yarn winders.

Converting a plain piece of mollusk shell into a work of art starts with the shell being cut into pieces. The dull outer portion is removed, and the inner material is polished; it's then ready for the artisan's handiwork. He uses a fine drill (or, in the old days, a fine stylus) to etch the pattern, often requiring thousands of strokes before the design is complete. Obviously, mother-of-pearl is not a forgiving material; errors can't easily be fixed, so the work must be painstaking and cautious. It's no wonder that modern token-makers prefer materials, like plastic, that are much easier to work with.

This convenience, however, has resulted in the loss of a valued art form. Although some mother-of-pearl gaming tokens and similar artifacts are still made by hand, they tend to be "boutique" items and are quite costly. Fortunately, antique mother-of-pearl gaming tokens are still available for purchase, if you know where to look -- and sometimes for very reasonable prices, as low as just a few dollars.

You're not likely to find antique mother-of-pearl items at your neighborhood garage sale (though of course it's possible). Better sources are estate sales and auctions. Estate sales usually involve the liquidation of an individual's entire estate, either because they have died or because their debts have caught up with them. The purpose of these is to raise as much money as possible, so you might not get the best prices possible; however, there's always the chance that the assessors might undervalue the pieces, allowing you to pick them up for a song. There's an alternate method of getting tokens for bargain prices once you find them at an estate sale, but it'll require a good set of nerves. In the final day or so of an estate sale, the operators often cut the listed prices by half or more. If your tokens are still waiting for you, you can snatch them up then for a decent amount.

Auctions exist in a variety of types -- for example, silent, sealed bid, and Internet. The best kinds for any collector are the ones in which you can be physically present and examine the pieces in person before you buy them. For many people, however, this is not logistically possible, so online auctions are the only solution. EBay is the king of online options and is a great choice, but other auction sites like Ruby Lane ( and Old and Sold ( are more oriented toward antiques. While they can be bid up to hundreds of dollars, depending on their rarity or how much someone wants them, you can find individual mother-of-pearl tokens or even collections of 3-4 tokens for relatively low prices at online sites. You can even get great items from European vendors, if you're willing to pay a few extra dollars of postage. But beware: it's easy to get cheated when you're seeing the items only in pictures on your computer. Make sure you investigate a particular vendor's reputation (often indicated by their feedback rating on EBay and other online sites), and ask if they offer a 14-day return policy so you can return anything you don't like for a complete refund. If they smell fishy, don't deal with them. Also, never hesitate to return an item that was improperly described or that's otherwise not up-to-snuff. If the vendor is unwilling to refund your money in a timely fashion, you do have recourses; you can report them to the auction site's fraud office (Safe Harbor at EBay, for example), or -- if the amount lost justifies it -- to the police in their part of the country. Unfortunately, foreign vendors may not be easily touchable in this manner.

Although antique mother-of-pearl gaming tokens can be found offered individually, they're often part of a set, complete with containers and other items. These will certainly be more expensive than "orphan" tokens. For example, the Mallett Auction House of London and New York recently offered a mother-of-pearl and silver games box from 18th-century China. This item was described thus in their catalog: "A charming late 18th century mother-of-pearl games box, finely carved and engraved throughout with birds perched on branches, flowers and leaves, the interior with five engraved mother-of-pearl boxes with silver mounts containing mother-of-pearl game pieces, raised on silver ball feet; the interior with gold silk lining." An item like this is worth hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. You can get less expensive multi-piece collections from auction web sites like EBay and Ruby Lane, though they usually won't come with a container or associated items. Many of these are offered for less than $200, and are a good way to get started in antique token collecting. However, their provenance (i.e., their origins and ages) is often unknown, though they can sometimes be guessed, given the style of workmanship.

Collecting antique mother-of-pearl gaming tokens involves a great deal of persistence, sleuthing, and enjoyable research. The fruits of your labor can be used for display purposes, of course, and it's always fun to trade. You can even use them as they were intended, for counters when playing games new and old. Whatever you choose to do, this hobby can be a rewarding experience -- so what are you waiting for?

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