An article by David Federman, not dated sadly...
As bad guesses go, this one was legendary. Last November, when Christie’s Hong Kong became the first of the world’s major auction houses to offer a melo pearl, it gave a pre-sale estimate to the one it chose to sell of between $20,000 and $30,000. But unexpectedly strong bidding on the 23 x 19.35mm blazing orange oddity resulted in a final price of $488,311.
In April, the same auction house decided to put another of these gastropod-grown fireballs up for sale. Because the second specimen was larger (31.70 x 31.26mm) and prettier, Christie’s forecast a far more exuberant selling price between $150,000 and $200,000. Once again, it was wrong. But this time it was off the mark by a respectable $77,272.
Appraisal difficulties aside, why did melo pearls set paddles waving at two recent Far East auctions? And why were both of these rarities put on the block in Hong Kong instead of, say, New York or Geneva?
According to Ken Scarratt of the Gemological Institute of America, author of the first extensive gemological report on these pearls (found in a fascinating book, The Pearl and the Dragon, edited by Derek J. Content), melo pearls are an Asian passion with a long history of veneration.
Virtually unknown in the west until very recently, melo pearls might have failed to attract attention, let alone action, if put up for sale anywhere but in Asia. The reason is simple: habitat. Melo pearls—all of which, it should be pointed out, are natural—are found in the Indo-Pacific region—“more particularly,” Scarratt writes, “in Myanmar [Burmese], Thai, Malaysian, Vietnamese, and Australian waters.”
This isn’t to say there aren’t western collectors and connoisseurs of these gems. Every year, Gina Latendresse of American Pearl Co. in Nashville, Tennessee, is able to locate a couple of these pearls and sell them to eager American and European buyers for anywhere from $10,000 to well into the six figures, depending on size and beauty. But she caters to a handful. The legions of owners, if there are legions, are in Asia, especially Vietnam.
Any discussion of melo pearls should begin with the word “melo” itself. Tempting as it might seem, the word “melo” is not a shortening of the word “mellow.” Instead it refers to a subgroup of a large family of gastropods (i.e., snails) known as volutes. In his essay on melo pearls written for The Pearl and the Dragon, Scarratt lists five distinct species of melo volutes known to produce pearls—and suggests the number could be far greater.
Melo pearls aren’t, strictly speaking, pearls. To be a pearl proper means to be composed entirely of, or (in the case of cultured pearls) coated with, nacre (a combination of aragonite and calcite). To distinguish them from nacre pearls, melo pearls are classified as “porcelaneous”—a term that refers more to appearance than chemistry. (The difference between the two categories is very much like the difference between bone and teeth.) Related to pearls produced by the giant conch found principally in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, both melo and conch pearls are notable for their porcelain-like sheen and distinctive markings which are often likened to flames. The sharper these flame patterns, the more valuable.
Although very much alike in appearance, conch and melo pearls are quite different in color. Conch pearls tend to be pink while melo pearls tend to be orange. At their best, the latter possess bright, vivid hues that evoke “Sunkist” oranges and tangerines. But more often they will be orangy-yellow to yellowy-orange. Occasionally, white melo pearls are found, but these are exceptions to the rule.
Although identified with Asia, the melo pearl owes its sudden worldwide celebrity to an American: New York gem dealer and writer Benjamin Zucker. In 1993, Zucker was shown a collection of 23 “deep orange, natural pearls” by a Swiss dealer who left them with him for extensive and intensive study. After showing them to Scarratt who immediately identified them as Vietnamese in origin, Zucker assembled a small team of gemologists, scholars, and writers who traveled to Vietnam in hopes of documenting the provenance of these beauties. Although the history of ownership for the collection remains a mystery, Zucker’s quest inspired a 1997 article in Smithsonian magazine. This, in turn, set the stage for these extraordinary marine rarities to set record prices for single pearls at auction late last year and early this one.