Now researchers [at Berkeley] have developed a method for manufacturing nacre-like materials in the lab. These new materials have mechanical properties similar to metal alloys and are the toughest ceramics ever made.
The process involves aluminum oxide suspended in water which is chilled in a controlled fashion to create long, column-like structures. Driving out the water through heating results in a brick-like structure. When repeated, large pieces can be made where the aluminum oxide 'bricks' are joined by columns, similar to nacre. By filling spaces in the ceramic with polymer that allows the layers to slide when stressed, the resulting ceramic combines high toughness and strength.
Work is underway to reduce the size of the micro-structure and also increase the aluminum oxide to polymer ratio. By replacing the polymer with metal fillers, ceramics that could handle higher temperatures are also possible.