What’s in a name? Not much when it comes to conch pearls, the Caribbean’s contribution to mollusk-made gems. Gemologists treat this name with so little respect that it might as well be an alias.
First of all, the name isn’t pronounced “conch,” but “conk” (as in honk).
Second, and far more serious, the gem isn’t even a pearl. Oh sure, it’s got the same basic chemicals—aragonite and calcite—as the oyster pearl. But the ratio between them is so different that the outcome can’t be called nacre, although it too is a calcium carbonate just like an oyster pearl. Besides lacking nacre, the conch pearl grows in a continuous manner (concretion), while the oyster pearl forms in layers. OK, if it isn’t a pearl proper, then what is it?
According to Archie Curtis, a pearl specialist at the Gemological Institute of America in Santa Monica, Calif., it is currently called a “calcareous concretion.”
Sorry we asked.
“I know the term isn’t very romantic,” he adds, faintly apologetic, “but the gemologists’ job is accuracy.”
Maybe so. But until the late 19th century, gemologists allowed romance to take precedence over reality. It is only around 1900 that they start becoming somewhat prissy about pearl nomenclature, objecting in books and articles to according the conch pearl full pearl status.
Ever since, the conch pearl has been considered a bastard pearl—deprived of species membership because of what some say is a silly technicality: growth in the wrong kind of shell. But it’s no laughing matter to gemologists. Around 1900, defenders of the then-emerging new pearl orthodoxy, one of them the great German gemologist Max Bauer, started to argue that conch pearls weren’t pearls as such because they came from a shell that lacked a mother-of-pearl layer—something considered essential for the soft, prismatic color effect (also known as “orient”) seen in true pearls.
Later generations of gemologists have been even less charitable with the name conch pearl. “No gem identification for a ‘conch pearl’ will ever leave GIA’s labs described as a pearl,” Curtis declares. As he speaks, you get the feeling this is as much a solemn vow as a statement of policy.
Nevertheless, the trade at large can be excused for taking a softer line toward these very rare, lovely and coveted gems.
Snail Versus Oyster Grown
Ninety years ago, when natural, non-cultured pearls were the norm, the trade often broadly defined a pearl as any organic gem grown by a shell animal to protect itself from an irritation—usually a piece of shell or a parasite (but never, incidentally, the proverbial grain of sand). Hence it didn’t matter if the mollusk was an oyster (bivalve) or snail (univalve). In the case of univalves, the No. 1 pearl producer was, and still is, the great conch (Strombus gigas), a large marine snail found throughout the Caribbean.
Because the conch’s meat was extremely popular as a food delicacy, and its beautiful shell equally popular as a garden ornament, tens of millions were gathered annually. In roughly 1,000 of these shells, reports the greatest book on pearls ever written, George Kunz’s and Charles Stevenson’s 1908 masterpiece, The Book of the Pearl, pearls were found embedded in the conch’s meat. If sufficiently large, lustrous and beautiful, the authors continue, these pearls could fetch up to $5,000 in retail stores.
Today, the chances of discovering a pearl in a conch shell, says Susan Hendrickson, a noteworthy collector of conch pearls who works for The Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, Hill City, S.D., are the same as in Kunz’s day—one in 10,000 to 15,000. But since conch populations have been practically decimated in some areas (including Florida where fishing for them is now illegal), and since conch pearl culturing has never succeeded, the number of pearls found yearly is far less, perhaps 200 tops, most from the Bahamas.
It is ironic that a pearl found so close to America is so little known here, especially when it is a coveted connoisseur item throughout Europe and the Middle East. In fact, two determined collectors, one European and the other Saudi Arabian, battled the price of a pink 17-carat symmetrical oval conch pearl to just under $12,000 at a Paris auction in the fall of 1984.
Admittedly, that’s a stratospheric price for a conch pearl. Normally, according to Hendrickson, these pearls will cost jewelers between $75 to $300 per carat (this per-1 is generally priced in carats, non momme) for better-to-fine pieces of 10 to 12 carats. The most superb specimens command more, of course. For instance, Hendrickson’s remarkable 3.06-carat conch pearl shown on the facing page is for sale at an adamant but justified $1,500, or $500 per carat.
Pink, With Flames
The most path pearls found in conches 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) of 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 Max Bauer’s inimitable words, as “delicate white wavy lines, like the most beautiful pink velvet.” The conch pearl shown on the opposite page perfectly embodies Bauer’s description.
Like these 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.
Once a popular item in America, conch pearls may be on the comeback trail. In 1985, Harry Winston Inc., New York, a name which stands for jewelry opulence, created a magnificent conch pearl and diamond necklace with accompanying conch pearl and diamond earrings. “That’s just about the highest form of recognition the conch pearl has received in 75 years,” Hendrickson says.
Please note: this profile was originally published in 1988 in Modern Jeweler’s ‘Gem Profiles: The First 60’, written by David Federman with photographs by Tino Hammid.
The 3.06-carat conch pearl shown in the header image is courtesy of Susan Hendrickson, The Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, Hill City, S.D.