Intricate biomineralization processes in molluscs engineer hierarchical structures with meso-, nano- and atomic architectures that give the final composite material exceptional mechanical strength and optical iridescence on the macroscale. This multiscale biological assembly inspires new synthetic routes to complex materials. Our investigation of the prism–nacre interface reveals nanoscale details governing the onset of nacre formation using high-resolution scanning transmission electron microscopy. A wedge-polishing technique provides unprecedented, large-area specimens required to span the entire interface. Within this region, we find a transition from nanofibrillar aggregation to irregular early-nacre layers, to well-ordered mature nacre suggesting the assembly process is driven by aggregation of nanoparticles (~50–80 nm) within an organic matrix that arrange in fibre-like polycrystalline configurations. The particle number increases successively and, when critical packing is reached, they merge into early-nacre platelets. These results give new insights into nacre formation and particle-accretion mechanisms that may be common to many calcareous biominerals.
These results imply that classical concepts such as template-mediated ion-driven crystallization appear foreshortened when it comes to understand the full complexity of nacre formation. Nacre growth by particle accretion of an initial amorphous precursor is the key for generating a hybrid ceramic material.