As we launch our iconic Ormer collection, made from Jersey mother of pearl, we talk to a third generation ‘ormerer’ about this important Jersey tradition.
Ormer, the Jersey name for abalone shell, has been gathered in Jersey for centuries. Its mother of pearl is uniquely sandy-coloured, holding rainbows of light. This precious ocean gem has been traditionally used for everything from shirt buttons to impressive inlay on furniture and musical instruments. Today, searching for ormers is a dying art – one that is strictly controlled to protect this endangered marine species. There are only a handful of skilled practitioners left, and Trevor Le Cornu is one such man. Born in Jersey to a farming family, he’s almost as rare a find as an ormer, as he’s a third generation ormerer.
Trevor’s father was a child during the Occupation of the Channel Islands in World War II. Food was scarce, and he became skilled at hiding his catch of ormers in his boots, socks and vest, so he could feed his large family. The German soldiers would routinely search the fishermen and confiscate their entire catch, so Trevor’s father left a few ormers in his sack for credibility, while he limped awkwardly back home with his precious ormers stuck to his legs and chest under his clothing.
Le Cornu was just five years old when he first went with his father on an ormering expedition to L’Etacq, with its rocky shores that had shipwrecked many vessels over the years. Because he was so young, his father hadn’t expected Le Cornu to find any ormers, but the young boy soon found one – a moment that stays with him to this day.
‘I remember being proud of my find and I also recall the shock from my father who had sent me off not actually expecting me to be successful. My reward was eating the ormer that evening – gently fried in Jersey butter and served with potatoes and green beans!’
Over the years, Le Cornu learned the ormerer’s ways. ‘My father taught me to hide from other fishermen, diverting from the route of my favourite ormering location to mislead the competition. Sometimes it was a seriously long diversion. Sometimes, I walked out of a deep pool holding an ormer I’d caught previously, just to try to get others to waste time fishing that pool on the next tide!’
On average, Le Cornu goes twice a year to search for ormers, expecting to catch just six on each trip. But ensuring this comparatively small success isn’t easy. Aside from stealth, Le Cornu has a list of qualities needed for ormering. Chief of these is a keen eye – to be able to differentiate between a rock and an ormer, which, although it would seem obvious, is difficult because of the ormer’s excellent natural camouflage. An ormerer also must be physically fit enough to walk for hours, following the tide out to sea as he clambers over large rocks and turns them. Lastly, persistence is a must; a catch isn’t guaranteed, and the ormerer must be determined to continue the search, until his luck changes.
‘Part of my enjoyment,’ says Le Cornu, ‘is the fact that you have to work so hard to get them. I also have fond memories of my father teaching me where they are most likely to be found.’
Le Cornu’s master skills are a great match for Jersey Pearl – as an ethical company we are committed to practises that protect the natural environment. Our ormer jewellery is sourced sustainably making it a truly unique and wonderful way of celebrating Jersey’s cultural heritage.
Discover the Ormer collection here.
Fascinated by ormers? Here are some quick facts:
Ormers are abalones – nacreous, single-shelled gastropod molluscs, which are basically marine snails.
They grow naturally all over the world, including the Channel Islands. Their highest concentration is around Jersey and the Brittany coast.
Much like limpets, they use a ‘foot’ to attach to the seabed and so are found exclusively on rocks and boulders.
An ormer will take three to four years to grow to 9cm in length, and a fully mature ormer can reach 15.5cm. They have a long lifespan, achieving more than 15 years in the right conditions.