Japanese Mother Of Pearl Vanity Set

Japanese Ama Divers & The Vanities Which Resulted From Their Work

We do not know the maker of this set because it is not signed but we are sure that it was made in Japan. This mid-century mother of pearl vanity set has not been used. The compact is suitable for loose foundation.


Set atop the mother of pearl lid is a person pulling a rickshaw. One occupant of the rickshaw is holding a parasol. 

This scene depicted on the lid is possibly that of a bride and groom. Rickshaws are still used in Shinto weddings. Both the bride and groom are taken by this form of transport to the shrine. Japanese wedding ceremonies are usually attended by a small group of close family members who will walk to the shrine. Traditional Shinto weddings would often take place at a shrine which might be in the home town. 

A Japanese almanack would be consulted so that the bride and groom could be guided to pick a fortuitous date. If the ceremony is taking place outdoors in the shrine pavilion it would have to be a spring or autumn wedding to guarantee suitable weather as far as possible.


At some point in time during the wedding ceremony it is quite usual for both the bride and groom to hold wagasa (parasols). These can also feature in the formal photographs. If the wagasa is decorated with a pattern the screen can give the appearance of movement.

Wagasa are made from bamboo and paper. As well as shielding people from the heat of the sun, wagasa are believed to protect the owner from evil spirits. 

If our assumption that the lid decoration depicts a bride and groom is correct, it is highly likely that these sets were made as wedding gifts for brides, although money is usually the preferred Japanese wedding gift. 

Mother of pearl is said to attract prosperity.

Woodblock Print Ink On Paper by Yosai Nobukazu

Japanese Mother Of Pearl & Abalone Harvesting

We are sure that you know that mother of pearl (nacre) is harvested from the shells of sea creatures, which include pearl oysters and abalone. 

The ama are Japanese divers who are famed for their diving skills and pearl oyster catches. 

Traditionally the ama were diving for food and nacre to decorate Shinto shrines.

In the 21st century the few Ama divers still working are principally tasked with sourcing seaweed. 


Most ama are women. This ancient Japanese tradition dates back to Japan’s Heian period (794-1185). The ama were given the honour to dive for abalone and mother of pearl which would adorn the shrines and palaces of the emperors. The traditional costume of the ama was made out white material because this colour represents purity. There is a belief that white clothing will protect against shark attacks. 

The ama are remarkably tough. Japanese waters are home for sharks and often the water is quite cold. In winter the water is often as cold as 12 degrees. The great physical endurance required to prise oysters and abalone from rocks is admirable and even more so when you realise that these divers are free diving. They do not use oxygen tanks and they have only recently begun to dive in wetsuits which hold in the body heat. 

Recently a world champion freediver spent time with a middle aged ama diving for oysters. Very few people on earth would be able to compete with the diving abilities and endurance of the Japanese ama. The ama kept diving long after the world champion who was half her age was exhausted. 

For centuries the ama would follow in their mother’s footsteps so to speak. Generation after generation would practise this way of making a living. It is possible that the physical endurance capabilities of the ama could be passed down, especially when children were brought up in this traditional way of life. Girls as young as 12 would be taught by an older ama. Many ama would continue to dive into their 70s. 

Woodblock Ink & Colour On Paper c. 1845

The ama are deeply spiritual people. They have Shinto shrines where they worship and pray for their safety. They are also dedicated to conservation. Pearl oysters, abalone etc are measured and put back into the sea if they are not mature enough to be harvested. The ama practice rock turning to make new habitats for the sea creatures, particularly abalone.  Rock turning can result in fatalities because heavy rocks can fall back trapping the ama who would quickly run out of breath. 

You may think that it is a little strange that these ladies would choose not to wear breathing apparatus to help them carry out their work and to also make rock turning safer. After much consultation the ama decided that overfishing could result if ama had the benefit of oxygen tanks and so they decided against using them. Their deep respect for the sea and the creatures of the sea is evident. All ama must abide by rules which prevent overfishing. 

Some of the shellfish are eaten freshly cooked in the ama hut but most of the shellfish are sold at the market. 

The shells are often sold to processors who cut them into strips using motorised saws. Strips of mother of pearl and abalone are processed and put into hot fired presses which straighten them. The straightened strips are stuck onto boards to keep them lying flat. Processing the mother of pearl and abalone is hazardous work because the fine dust created during the sawing process can not be removed from the lungs if it is inhaled. 

We have the greatest respect for the ama. 

We have even more appreciation for this traditional Japanese set now that we know the processes involved to create it.

This set is lacquered and so it should not require cleaning, as long as the lacquer is not damaged. 

The mother of pearl should be protected from perfume as it can damage the nacre and dull its appearance.



Mother of pearl music boxes crafted in Japan are often presented in boxes just like the one shown below. The Japanese Clover & B.S.B. brands are well known for their adorable musical powder boxes. These are often fitted with musical movements crafted by Sankyo. Many music boxes were destined for the export market and so they often play music which appeals to westerners. 

The music box featured below plays Killarney.




More vintage vanity sets & compact mirrors.