Conch Pearl

Cyril Roger Brossard

Well-known member
Aug 30, 2012
An article by David Federman

Marine archeologist Sue Hendrickson was, until last year, a one-woman cartel for a little-known pearl found in a Caribbean univalve mollusk called a Queen conch (pronounced conk, as in honk). Now she shares her conch pearl monopoly with renowned Geneva, Switzerland, jewelry maker Georges Ruiz who is as convinced as his partner that this calcareous concretion (that?s what gemologists call natural pearls made of something other than nacre) is finally set for the fame that has long eluded it.
What, you might ask, are the signs of coming success for this pearl? Well, the signs are more like those that precede a storm than the storm itself. Firms like Boucheron and Damiani that have a sixth sense for a gem?s imminent popularity are suddenly making conch pearl jewelry. Damiani client Brad Pitt even bought a conch pearl.
Big deal, you might be tempted to say, two designers do not a market make. But those familiar with the relatively uneventful history of conch pearl consumption know that the last time any major Hollywood icon paid serious attention to this pearl was in 1987. That?s when Elizabeth Taylor, as much a friend to pearls as diamonds, was seen wearing a Harry Winston conch pearl earring and necklace suite. But Liz donned those pearls purely for publicity purposes. Pitt actually bought his. Just one celebrity purchase of a gem as rare and offbeat as the conch pearl can start a stampede in a world as hungry for fashion statements as Hollywood. So the Hendrickson-Ruiz conch pearl consortium has what it feels are ample reasons for optimism.
Yet one question bothers the pair as fame beckons. Why is fortune smiling on the conch pearl just when it is frowning on the queen conch? In an almost sadistic twist of fate, the conch pearl faces popularity at the same time that the gastropod which grows it faces extinction.
Just 30 years ago, Queen conches dotted the ocean floor from Yucatan along the Cuba coast and Florida Keys, then eastward through the Caribbean basin as far as Barbados and north into the Atlantic Ocean up to Bermuda. Then when conch meat became a popular delicacy, hunters on giant trawlers moved in and turned the conchlands off of North, Central, and South America into killing fields. Today the slaughter has forced all but three conch-producing countries to ban or sharply limit Queen conch gathering. Meanwhile, conch pearls have become the most available ever as divers comb through millions of shell innards for the one in ten thousand with a fine gem suitable for jewelry.
Given the accelerated conch pearl accumulation of the last two decades, it is only natural that someone like Hendrickson would have wanted to make a thriving market in these variously mascara-pink, Advil-orange, and cafe-au-lait brown beauties with, at their best, prized flame-structure patterns on their surface. Don?t get the wrong idea. The conch pearl has occasionally known acclaim, most notably when it became a minor stalwart of Art Nouveau and Edwardian jewelry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Conch pearls proved ideal for pieces which needed a gem to suggest pink floral buds and berries or to give blush-colored accents to platinum jewelry. New designs evoke that heyday.
Given the lack of interest in conch pearls after World War I, a monopoly in them would have been easy to make. Key West conch specialist Manuel Marcial encountered his first conch pearl in 1959 on San Bernado Island, 11 miles off the coast of Colombia, after spear fishing. A local fisherman offered him a conch pearl he had just found in exchange for Marcial?s entire day?s catch of six lobsters. "A part of me felt I was getting the worst of the deal," Marcial, who was then a conch know-nothing, recalls, "but the pearl?s beautiful pink color so captivated me I couldn?t refuse."
Fifteen years later, a far more knowledgeable Marcial sold the 2.88 carat barter pearl to a collector for $5,000. Now he has 50 pieces of original-design conch pearl jewelry in his Emeralds International store in Key West and 30 more in his Marcial de Gomar branch in Charleston, South Carolina, whose pearls range in price from $250 to $9,000 per carat. "Conch pearls are almost as much a part of my identity as a jeweler as emeralds," he says.
Ryo Yamaguchi, former senior managing director of Mikimoto Pearls in Japan from 1957 to 1997, featured a special line of conch pearl jewelry every one of his last 10 years with the firm. As a result, Japan is the world?s first and only market with significant consumer awareness of conch pearls. Yamaguchi believes that sooner or later a retailer like Tiffany?s, which has an illustrious pearl past, will take up the banner for conch pearls in America.
Since it is Hendrickson who persuaded Yamaguchi to take the plunge into conch pearls, it is probably she who will embolden other jewelers to follow Mikimoto?s lead. It helps to own at least half of all the conch pearls available for sale?especially now when supplies of freshly retrieved pearls are dwindling to nothing. Nevertheless, Hendrickson continues her ceaseless conch quest along the cannery rows of the Caribbean. She has no choice. "Thirty years ago, you found boatloads of conch shells in a couple feet of water in the Florida Keys," Hendrickson says. "Now you have to go miles off shore and dive deep to find one or two shells?that is, if you?re lucky."
For the most part, pearls found in conchs are tiny seed pearls. Those worthy of use in jewelry tend to be symmetrical in shape, generally oblong, far more often than baroque. Occasionally they are spherical. Impressive sizes have been found. In fact, Sotheby?s in Geneva tried unsuccessfully to sell a 100-carat tan conch pearl a few years ago.
The principal determinant of value for a conch pearl is its color. Although most tend to be brown, beige or ivory, enough are pink for these pearls to have been known as ?pink pearls? in the trade circa 1900. Today, as then, collectors expect these pearls to be anywhere from deep rose red (in smaller sizes) or salmon orange to eyeshadow pink.
What?s more, collectors want to see a unique mottled-color effect called ?flame structure.? This is the snail-pearl counterpart to orient in oyster pearls and appears, in Bauer?s words, as ?delicate white wavy lines, like the most beautiful pink velvet.? The conch pearl shown here perfectly embodies Bauer?s description.
Like the shells from which they come, conch pearls have a tendency to fade if exposed to prolonged sunlight. So Hendrickson advises wearing them mostly as a ?night gem.? This is the only caveat about conch pearls different from those given for oyster pearls.