Mabés make a good gem buy for the price, given some discernment. How much of a buy? The ring shown, from Ross-Simon, features a 15mm mabé set in silver, on sale for $75.
Mabés are made, like all cultured pearls, by introducing at least one nucleus (shell, plastic or other material) into the oyster, in this case, between the shell and the mantle, the part of the oyster that produces nacre.
The mabé grows on the shell, rather than within the tissue, so it ends up attached there. Not any old shell, though; the mabé oyster is the Pterian penguin or penguin wing. The perfection of their pearly gifts began to hit the market in the '70s, when they began to be farmed in saltwater-pearl producing regions like Mexico, Tahiti, Thailand, China and Japan (Abalone shells can grow mabés too, but let's save those for another post.)
The term blister or half pearl is also used for mabés. The photo above shows that one shell can yield several mabés.
Months to years after implanting, the producer harvests the oyster, cuts away the blister, trims it, fills the hollow dome of the pearl with an epoxy resin, and applies a mother-of pearl back. The finished pearl looks like a plump, nacre-covered pillow. (The technique is also used to create fancy shapes like hearts, Xs, Buddhas, stars.)
The nacre of that oyster variety creates intense rainbow overtones and wild iridescence in the best examples. I've seen mabés that look almost back-lit with swirling greens and blues, or intense rose overtones shimmering with green-gold flashes. Some producers dye mabés (usually blue) or enhance colour by placing a deeply-coloured material under the blister; such treatment should be disclosed.
Because producers don't have to create spheres, mabés are far cheaper than round pearls, but the spectacular, undyed examples can get up there. The mabé is a kind of composite pearl; the gemstone equivalent is the doublet, in which a thinner layer of material such as ruby is applied to a base of less-costly stone like quartz. (Some pearl experts, like Sara Canizzaro of Kojima Company, do not consider mabés to be genuine pearls. They are more like 'cultured pearl byproducts'.)
They will be set to cover the back, in a bezel or recessed setting. Mabés are popular for pendants, where a flat back is often preferred. The gold and silver mabé ring above, designed by Steve Crawford, is offered by Australian jeweler Panda Pearls; price, $245 (AUS).
A Balinese silver cocktail ring with a blue square mabé, a big splash of cocktail in your glass for $99.99 from Novica artist Diah Ayu.
Ah, vintage, ahhhh, Beladora! Their mabé and diamond ring's both subtle and a knockout at once, an Ingrid Bergman pearl. (And who is her equal today?) Though radiating mid-century glamour, it's tailored enough to not require full evening clobber. (Price, $1,850.)
If you have your own design ideas, one of the reputable dealers who sell loose mabés is Carolyn Ehret, who maintains an eBay store, Ehret Design Gallery. Here's an example, wildly glowing Sea of Cortez mabé, 15 x 17mm, BIN price $89.
Keep a lookout for richly-hued mabés. Dull or cheaply-made pieces have, in the past, tarred then with a head-shop rep, but in good hands, a mabé delivers pearly pleasure for far less than other varieties. Mabé's affordability is a secret among fine jewelers.
Now you know, too!