145: Restoration of an Antique Mother of Pearl and Olive Wood Carving

One of our friends, Scott Sherwood, is an art restorer. He’s great at working on paintings (as you can see from his most recent work on WPA murals), but I think the love of his craft really comes through in his dedication to restoring challenging pieces. When a client came to him with an amazing antique mother of pearl and olive wood carving made in Jerusalem, he spent weeks experimenting with materials to see if he could replicate the mother of pearl, and came to us for help with the intricate carved olive wood backing.

Scott Sherwood, back in 2015 when we did Project 80: Katana Stand (If you look at the post, please ignore that I put the katana in incorrectly).

There is a long tradition of carving mother of pearl and olive wood into Christian iconography in Jerusulem. Pieces like this were sold as souvenirs of the Holy Land to pilgrims, and this carving likely dates back to the mid 19th century. This scene, depicting when Jesus rose from the dead with the three Marys to the left and 11 disciples below, is expressive and intricate, and was made my a master craftsman. It’s also rather rare – the nativity scene is much more common to see. The piece was impressively large – over 2 feet tall without the extra decorative elements.

The whole piece, shown without the feet or side flourishes.
Detail of the mother of pearl carving – amazing (and slightly blurry, apologies).

Over the years, some of the decorative flourishes were damaged or removed – such as the small bottom feet is rested on, and the side filigree that added extra flourish. There was a similar piece, with more of the original elements and depicting the Nativity scene, donated to Passavant Hospital in Pittsburgh in 2016. I don’t want to borrow their images without permission to post them here, but if you click over, you can see how delicate the filigree is.

Scott developed a way to replicate the missing mother of pearl (I won’t divulge his secrets here!) but needed help carving the intricate olive wood base underneath. The pattern was pretty simple, actually, and very reminiscent of my early jewelry designs as Isette! Scott wanted the restored parts to match as closely as they could to the original elements, which meant we got to cut olive wood!

Backside of the old foot – you can see the edge of the mother of pearl front.
Pattern we made of the old foot

The feet were originally 3/4″ thick, which we cannot cut on our laser. Scott sourced a beautiful block of olive wood for the project, and then had it cut in 1/4 inch slices, which we carefully kept in cut order. For each foot, we laser cut the design in three consecutive slices, which were then laminated back together. It was on this base he mounted the replicated mother of pearl elements to create the finished piece.

Little bundles to be laminated together, by a different expert Scott knows!

Olive wood is a fascinating material. It smells heavenly and has to be the oiliest thing we have ever put in the laser. Scott wrapped the three slices for each foot together with plain white paper – by the time we got them the paper was translucent with the permeated oil. Reminiscent of a sack of greasy fast food, but much better smelling. There was a slight concern the oil might actually set fire to the pieces with the laser, but we watched them closely and it wasn’t a problem.

Old (bottom) and new (top) feet. You can tell the new stuff need a little aging :). Also shown is the original mother of pearl (left) and the replica (right)

Going through our project archives, we realized we neglected to get pictures from Scott of the finished piece, but he did let us know the owner was very happy with the newly restored feet! Thanks, Scott, for such a unique project!

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