The Big Pink Pearl


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Lareef A. Samad B.Sc.(Hons)

Origin of Name

The origin of the name "Big Pink Pearl" is self explanatory, as the name seems to be based on two of the most important and striking features of the pearl, its size and color. The pearl, which is a natural abalone pearl weighing 470 carats, had once gone down in the Guinness Book of World Records as the biggest natural abalone pearl ever discovered. However in 1996, another natural abalone baroque pearl weighing 685 carats, discovered off the coast of California, and which is now in the personal collection of K. C. Bell, has replaced the "Big Pink Pearl" as the world's biggest natural abalone pearl, in the Guinness Book of World Records. Having held the record for the world's largest natural abalone pearl, the appellation "Big" used for this rare natural pearl, discovered in the Pacific, off the coast of California, appears to be more than amply justified. So is the name "Pink" which refers to the highly iridescent pink color of the abalone pearl that appears to have originated either in the pink abalone Haliotis corrugata, or the red abalone Haliotis rufescens, two species that can have a pink colored mother-of-pearl on the inner surface of their shells.


Characteristics of the Big Pink Pearl

The weight and shape of the pearl

The pearl that was discovered by a diver in Petaluma, California, in 1990, weighs 470 carats equivalent to 94 grams or 1880 grains, and had entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest Abalone pearl of any kind ever discovered. The shape of the pearl is described as baroque, the common shape of pearls formed in most species of abalones, given the anatomical features of abalones. The probability of a regular symmetrical pearl occurring in an abalone is less than 1 in 1.5 million. The most common shape of pearls formed in abalone is the "horn shape," or "tooth shape" a reflection of their origin in the gonadal horn of the univalved mollusks. It is not known whether the "Big Pink Pearl" also comes under this category of horn-shaped abalone pearls.


The color of the abalone pearl

The color, brilliance and luster of Abalone pearls is unsurpassed by all other natural pearls, making abalone pearls the most beautiful pearls in the world. This is because of the thick layers of nacre normally associated with the pearls. The nacre of abalone pearls is often multi-hued in tones of silver, orange, pink, green, blue and lavender. It is not uncommon to find individual abalone pearls, especially natural ones, which reveal several of these colors simultaneously, in every conceivable combination, in the expression of their orient. It is this property of abalone pearls that make them the most beautiful pearls in the world, and perhaps the first ever natural ornament worn by mankind in his long cultural evolution. But, abalone pearls also do exist in which one color predominates over other colors, depending on the type of species. There are over 100 naturally occurring species of Haliotis, that are potentially capable of producing abalone pearls. Some of these species are named according to the color of the iridescent mother-of-pearl inside the shells, such as pink abalone, red abalone, green abalone, black abalone, white abalone etc.


The possible origins of the abalone pearl

The "Big Pink Pearl" in all probability could have originated in either the pink abalone species known as Haliotis corrugata, or the red abalone species known as Haliotis rufescens, both of which can have a pink inner surface, the so-called mother-of-pearl. However the range of distribution of the two pearl species off the coast of California, where the giant pearl was discovered, and the maximum size attainable by the individual  uni-valved mollusks, might give a clue as to the possible origin of the pearl. Haliotis corrugata is commonly found in the Pacific, off the coast of California, in the mild warm waters, from Point Conception in Santa Barbara, California, downwards up to Santa Maria Bay, Baja California, in Mexico. The white and green abalones too have the same distribution as the the pink abalone Haliotis corrugata. However, the red abalone Haliotis rufescens have a much larger range from tidal pools in Oregon to deep reefs in southern Baja California, Mexico. Thus red abalones are found along the entire coastline of California.  In southern California however, the red abalone is an endangered species due to over fishing, otter depredation and  the outbreak of withering foot disease, and the State Fish and Game Commission had closed all red abalone fishing south of San Fransico since May 1997.

The "Big Pink Pearl" was discovered by a diver in Salt Point State Park, Petaluma, California, in 1990. Petaluma,  California, is situated north of Conception in Santa Barbara, and also north of San Francisco, and is much above the range where pink abalone Haliotis corrugata normally occurs. Hence the possibility of  the "Big Pink Pearl" being derived from the pink abalone Haliotis corrugata is quite remote. On the other hand, it is quite probable that the "Big Pink Pearl" originated from the red abalone Haliotis rufescens, which has a much wider distribution, found along the entire coastline of California. Moreover in terms of size too, Haliotis rufescens is the largest of the seven native California abalone species, and hence was large enough for the successful growth of the "Big Pink Pearl" the biggest natural abalone pearl ever to have been discovered. In fact the red abalone Haliotis rufescens is the largest of all abalones in the world.


Haliotis corrugata - the Pink Abalone

Classification of Haliotis corrugata :-

Kingdom       : Animalia

Phylum         : Mollusca

Class           : Gastropoda

Subclass       : Prosobranchia

Order           : Archaeogastropoda

Superfamily   : Pleurotomariacea

Family          : Haliotidae

Genus          : Haliotis

Species        : corrugata


Structure of Haliotis corrugata

Abalones are single shelled (univalve) marine mollusks, known as sea snails, which are edible, and are mainly harvested  for their meat and shells used for jewelry. They have a soft body surrounded by a mantle, with an anterior head, and a large muscular foot, that helps them to cling solidly to rocky surfaces. The soft body of the mollusk is surrounded by the single shell, which is dome-shaped or flattened and rounded to oval in shape, and is a type of exoskeleton giving protection to the animal. The shell  of the pink abalone has a pink corrugated margin, which is one of the distinguishing features of the species, and gives it the alternative name "corrugated abalone." A series of respiratory pores 2 to 4 in number are found closer to the anterior margin, for the escape of the current of water passing through the gills. The epipodium which is the extension of the foot is a sensory structure, extending outside the edge of the shell and carrying tentacles. The tentacles on the head and epipodium are black, but the edges of the epipodium  are a mottled black and white, with many tubercles on the surface.

Click here for a photograph of the inner aspect of Haliotis corrugata.


Habitat and Nutrition

Haliotis corrugata is most commonly found in giant kelp beds (Brown Algae) beneath the sea in the sub-tidal zone, in sheltered waters at depths of 6 to 38 meters. They feed on pieces of this brown algae, which is their main source of food. Haliotis corrugata are also cultivated in farms where the shell fish are raised on specially grown kelps. The natural enemies of Halliotis corrugata, besides man are sea otters, sea stars, octopus and large fish.



The sexes are separate and each individual mollusk has two pairs of gonads located in the middle of their bodies. The pink abalones reach maturity at the age of 3 - 4 years, when the diameter of the shell is only 3.5 cm The sexually mature male and female mollusks release enormous numbers of sperms and eggs into the water where fertilization takes place. The young abalones that develop after fertilization take shelter within the spines of sea urchins, and feed on coralline algae and diatoms, a close relationship without which the young ones would not survive. The adult abalone that feed on kelps can grow to a maximum size of 25 cm in diameter, and have a life span of about 30 years.


Conservation status

The pink abalone has been placed in the list of "Species of Concern" by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, indicating that there are concerns regarding their status and threats, but for which insufficient information is available to indicate a need to list the species under the "Endangered Species" list. The decline in the pink abalone populations off the coast of California, has been attributed, to over harvesting, the spread of withering foot disease, and climatic change. Since 1996, commercial and recreational abalone fisheries in California had been closed down by the State Fish and Game Commission, in order to conserve abalone populations including the pink abalone. However, abalone farms have been set up in certain areas, where the shellfish are raised on specially grown kelps.


The rarity of abalone pearls

The inner surface layer of the pink abalone, the mother-of-pearl, has an iridescent pink color; and the pink abalone is potentially capable of producing a pink abalone pearl in natural conditions. However the frequency of occurrence of abalone pearls for all species in natural conditions  is very low, estimated to be only around one per 1,500,000 animals for pearls of 15 mm (1.5 cm) in size. The main reason for the rarity of large pearls is the long period taken for the pearls to attain maximum size, which is around 8 to 10 years. However, since abalones are usually harvested for their meat only when they are about 4 or 5 years old, the chances of finding significantly large pearls in such animals are very rare. Perhaps another reason for their rarity might be the absence of a specific combination of factors for natural pearl formation, such as, invasion by a living parasite, sufficient movement of the animal, correct immune system response, correct water temperature and availability of correct diet.


What determines the shape of abalone pearls ?

Abalones pearls found in nature vary greatly in shape and may be either hollow or solid. The shapes may be regular shapes such as round and oval, and irregular shapes known as baroques. Some of the common baroque shapes are the flat baroque, horn-like shape, tooth-shape etc. The shape of the pearl depends on the part of the body of the mollusk, in which the parasite lodges itself. If the parasite lodges in the stomach area of the mollusk, the pearls developed are normally round shaped. If it lodges in the columella region, the shape of the pearls produced is crescent-shaped, and if the parasite lodges in the gonads, horn-shaped or tooth-shaped pearls are formed, in conformity with its shape.


Haliotis rufescens - the Red Abalone

Classification of Haliotis rufescens

Kingdom      :  Animalia

Phylum        :   Mollusca

Class          :  Gastropoda

Subclass      :  Prosobranchia

Order          :  Archaeogastropoda

Superfamily  : Pleurotomariaceae

Family         :  Haliotidae

Genus         :  Haliotis

Species       :  rufescens

Interior of a Red Abalone

Photograph above- Creative commons


Structure of Haliotis rufescens

Haliotis rufescens is another species of the Genus Haliotis, commonly known as the Red Abalone, because of the presence of the characteristic brick-red shell surface, sometimes masked by encrusted organisms. The inside edge of the shell is also red. The red color of the shell is caused by a substance known as rufescine, which is similar to the phycoerythrin pigment found in red algae. The color of the shell appears to be related to its eating habit. If the abalone had been feeding on a diet, alternating between red algae and brown algae, the shell formed would be a banded red shell. However, if the abalone feeds on brown algae alone, the shell formed is aquamarine (blue), green or white instead of red. The foot, epipodium and the tentacles are all black. There are 3 to 4 moderately elevated respiratory pores above the shell surface. Red abalones are the largest of all abalone species found in the world today and can reach a maximum length of over 30 cm ( 12 ins), but commonly exist in the range of 18 to 23 cm (7 to 9 ins) in length.


Habitat and Nutrition

Red abalones are found both in the inter-tidal and sub-tidal zones, ranging in depth from 20 to 40 meters. They live on rocky kelp beds covered with bull kelps and giant kelps, their primary source of food. Abalones have lived along the Pacific coast of North America for millions of years, and even today constitute one of the principal habitats of these univalved mollusks. The range of the red abalone species however extends from Sunset Bay, in Oregon to Tortugas, in Baja California. Thus, red abalones are found all along the coast of California. However, north of Point Conception in Santa Barbara, they are found both in the inter-tidal and sub-tidal zones, down to about 20 meters. In the coastline south of Point Conception, red abalones are found mainly in the sub-tidal zone down to around 40 meters.



Red abalones are unisexual, and the sexes are separate but have similar external appearance. They become sexually mature, at around 6 years, and some individuals may live up to 20 years. Fertilization is external, taking place in the surrounding water after the mature males and females had released their sperms and eggs (oocytes), that are produced in enormous quantities, in order to compensate for possible wastage in the open sea. Mature abalones spawn throughout the year, but especially during the period February to April. A large female may produce over 12 million ripe o o cytes. After successful fertilization, the oocytes hatch into free swimming trochophore  larvae, which subsequently transforms into the veliger larvae. These veliger larvae are induced to settle by chemical compounds released from coralline algae, upon which the young abalones graze. One such chemical stimulant that has been identified is gamma aminobutyric acid, which induces the veliger larvae to settle and metamorphose into juveniles. This association between the veliger larvae and the coralline algae is actually a symbiotic association, that benefits both sides. Whilst the veliger larvae receives food and the inducement to settle from the coralline algae, the algae is also benefited, because the larvae that scrapes only the surface of the algae for its food, removes fouling epiphytes. the young abalones that settle, cling on to rocky surfaces.


Conservation status

Abalones that were found abundantly in the Pacific coast of North America supported a multimillion-dollar  fisheries industry during a greater part of the 20th century. Red abalones had been the most commercially sought after species of abalones, due to their large size and the light color of their meat. In spite of their continued exploitation red abalone populations were maintained, as they have the ability to re-colonize depleted areas successfully. In the five-year period between 1950-55, 46 % of all abalone catches in California were red abalones. Since 1993, the harvesting of all other abalone species had been stopped, except red abalones, whose populations were still able to support fisheries in California. However, since 1997, the State Fish and Game Commission had closed all red abalone fishing, south of San Fransisco, followed by the introduction of a red abalone management plan to help the populations to recover. The red abalone fishery in Northern California however remained stable, giving an annual successful production, even though continued productivity was threatened by poaching. Today, due to serious decline in populations, commercial fishing even in Northern California has been totally banned, and only a tightly controlled recreational fishing is allowed. Among the reasons that has been adduced for the rapid decline of abalone populations off the coastline of California are overexploitation by commercial interests, otter and other predator depredations, the spread of withering foot disease, poaching and over harvesting by scuba divers, pollution of the coastal habitat, loss of habitat due to coastal development, competition from other sea animals, like sea urchins, who compete with the abalones for the same habitat and sources of food.


Some of the highlights of the red abalone recreational fishing regulations, as applicable in the coasts of Northern California

1) Abalone fishing is allowed only north of a line drawn due west magnetic from the center of the mouth of San Francisco Bay. Fishing south of the line is strictly prohibited.

2) Only red abalones species (Haliotis rufescens) can be harvested. Harvesting of all other species native to the coast of California, is totally prohibited.

2) Abalone fishing is allowed from the months of April to November, both months inclusive, except the month of July. Thus recreational fishing takes place only seven months in the year, with two break periods, one of 4 months from December to March, and a single month in July.

3) Only abalones that measure seven inches (17.78 cm) or more along the longest shell diameter, can be harvested. Undersized abalones if detached accidentally from the surface of a rock must be returned to the same surface.

4) The maximum number of red abalones that can be harvested per day by any person is three. At any time no person can possess more than three red abalones. During a calendar year no person shall take more than 24 red abalones.

5) All abalones taken should be tagged and appropriate entries made in the prescribed Abalone Report Card, giving month, day, time of catch, and the the fishing location.

6) Abalones can be taken either by shore picking or  breath-holding diving techniques. Scuba diving for abalone taking is completely prohibited. Abalones may be taken only by hand or using an abalone iron less than 36 inches in length, with a straight or curved end. The radius of the curve should not be less than 18 inches, the width not less than 3/4 inches, and the thickness not less than 1/16th of an inch. All edges must be rounded and free of sharp cutting edges. Knives, screw drivers and sharp instruments are prohibited.

7) Every person taking part in the recreation of fishing for abalones should carry with him a fixed-caliper measuring gauge capable of accurately measuring seven inches.

8) No person shall engage in any abalone fishing unless he/she has in his/her possession a non-transferable Abalone Report Card issued by the Department of Fish And Game of the State of California.


Could the "Big Pink Pearl" have originated in the red abalone Haliotis rufescens ?

The color of the nacre of red abalones appear to vary with the type of food consumed by the individual abalones. If the food consumed was predominantly red algae that contained the pigment phycoerythrin, the nacre could vary from pale pink to intense dusky pink colors. Thus it was quite possible that the "Big Pink Pearl" discovered off the coast of California, originated in one of these red abalones, the largest and commonest of abalone species in California. If the diet consumed by the abalone was mainly brown algae like the giant kelps, the color of the nacre could be either blue (aquamarine), violet or green, or a combination of these colors, and an occasional pearl that may develop may also possess these colors. The striking iridescence of the abalone nacre and pearl is associated with the thickness of the nacre which distinguishes abalone pearls from all other pearls derived from other mollusks. The baroque shape of the "Big Pink Pearl" possibly indicates its gonadial origin.


The present owner of the pearl and its estimated value

The baroque-shaped, 470-carat "Big Pink Pearl" was discovered in the year 1990 by Wesley Rankin, a diver in the Salt Point State Park, Petaluma, California, and became the largest ever abalone pearl discovered in any part of the world. The pearl was valued at $4.7 million in 1991, an impressive figure that was more than justified, given the rarity, and special characteristics of this natural pearl, such as its color, luster, iridescence, orient and size. It is believed that the "Big Pink Pearl" is still in the possession of its original owner and discoverer, Wesley Rankin, who is the largest abalone pearl dealer in the world, and the owner of the company "Pacific Coast Pearls" based in Petaluma, California.


History of the "Pacific Coast Pearls" company, at Petaluma, California

Wesley Rankin, who had been abalone diving for 18 years, found an exceptional quality abalone pearl weighing 118 carats, in the 1980s, while cleaning an abalone he had caught for his own consumption. Wesley Rankin who knew, that hundreds of other divers too, took part in abalone fishing as a recreation or for commercial purposes, was fully aware that he was not the only diver who was lucky enough to find a rare and exceptional quality pearl. Wesley Rankin then decided to build up a collection of rare abalone pearls, by purchasing the rare gems from their lucky finders. He began first by purchasing any abalone pearl finds from the abalone processing plants in Southern California. Subsequently, he purchased abalone pearls one by one. from pearl divers, who fished for abalone in the Northern coast of California, and were lucky enough to strike a valuable find. He thus gradually built up his collection of rare and valuable pearls. It was in 1990 that he struck "gold" again, when he discovered the 470-carat "Big Pink Pearl" during one of his routine diving expeditions. The entry of the "Big Pink Pearl" into the Guinness Book of World Records in 1990, was a singular achievement, that brought recognition and fame for Wesley Rankin.

By the year 1994, Wes Ranklin had built up an enormous collection of abalone pearls, that he was confidant would support an abalone jewelry designing company, and Wes Ranklin together with Tish Ranklin, set up the "Pacific Coast Pearls" company at Petaluma, in California, that supplied pearl set jewelry to the wholesale trade. The company deals not only with abalone pearls, but also other categories of pearls such as, Scallop Pearls, Oyster Pearls, Conch Pearls, Melo Melo Pearls, Mussel Pearls, Clam Pearls etc. Today, Pacific Coast Pearls has emerged as one of the leading wholesale pearl jewelry dealers in the world, dealing in high quality natural pearls, and designer abalone pearl jewelry.


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Related :-

1) Abalone Gallery

2) The Hope Pearl

3) Pearl of Allah/ Pearl of Lao Tzu

4) Arco Valley Pearl

5) La Pelegrina Pearl


External Link:-

Haliotis rufescens, Swainson 1822 - www .wallawalla. edu /academics/ departments / biology  

The Biogeography of the Red Abalone - by Adrian Priselac,   


References :-

1.Famous Pearls -   
2.The mysterious pearl - by Douglas,  
3.Abalone Pearls -
4.A Closer Look at Abalone Pearls  
5.The Largest Abalone Pearl Dealer in the World -  
6.Famous Pearls -
7.Abalone Pearls - Dr. Peter V. Fankboner - Department of Biological Sciences. Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada.
8.Haliotis rufescens, Swainson 1822 -  
9.Red Abalone -From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
10.The Biogeography of the Red Abalone - by Adrian Priselac,   
11.Abalone Sport Fishing Regulations - website of the Department of Fish And Game, California.  
12.Abalone - From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

13.Pink Abalone, Haliotis corrugata - Science & Nature : Animals,

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