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Lareef A. Samad B.Sc (Hons)
Conch pearls are extremely rare natural non-nacreous pearls produced by the sea-snail Strombus gigas, commonly known as the queen conch, found mainly in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. The queen conch is mainly harvested for its meat, which is a delicacy in the United States and the Caribbean. The shells of the queen conch are also valued as souvenirs, and used to manufacture cameos, curios and jewelry. However, the most important by product of the thriving queen conch fishery in the Caribbean, is the occasional pearl that was recovered from the conches. The conch pearl has a frequency of occurrence of 1 in 10,000 conches, out of which only about 10% are gem quality. Thus the probability of occurrence of gem quality conch pearls is 1/10,000 x 1/10 = 1/100,000, i.e. 1 in one hundred thousands queen conches. This is an extremely rare probability, yet given the massive annual production of queen conches, a considerable quantity of conch pearls are produced annually.
Conch pearls gained popularity in the late 19th-century, during the late-Victorian period, and early 20th-century, during the Belle Epoque or Edwardian period. The Queen Mary Conch Pearl Brooch is a prominent example of a piece of jewelry of this period incorporating conch pearls. The popularity of conch pearls during this period is associated with a decline in production of natural pearls from the traditional sources of natural pearls in the world, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Mannar. But, the popularity of conch pearls was short-lived, as soon after the end of world war I, the Japanese were able to successfully culture Akoya pearls in the 1920s, that flooded the pearl markets of the world, with a range of cultured pearls, in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes, and at affordable prices. The success of the Japanese, dealt a death blow to the traditional natural pearl fishing industries, in the countries surrounding the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Mannar. In the Gulf countries it caused a lot of poverty and depravation among thousands of pearl fisherman, who were engaged in the trade for generations. Fortunately, the discovery of oil in the region, in the 1930s, gave them new hopes and aspirations, a new lease of life, saving these nations from total collapse.
After the collapse of the natural pearl industry, the only natural pearls that were being produced in the world were conch pearls, and the South Sea pearls. However, these pearls were actually produced as a by product of another major industry. While conch pearls were produced as a by product of the queen conch meat industry, South Sea pearls were produced as a by product of the lucrative mother-of-pearl industry, whose nerve center was Broome in western Australia. After the collapse of the mother-of-pearl industry in the 1950s following the introduction of plastic buttons, a cultured pearl program for South Sea pearls was started, and today, Australia is in the forefront of the cultured pearl industry, together with Japan, China, and countries of the South Pacific. In the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, while the conch meat industry boomed, producing large quantities of conch pearls, there were no takers for these pearls, except for collectors and pearl enthusiasts. One such collector and pearl enthusiast was Susan Hendrickson, professional diver, marine archaeologist and paleontologist who achieved international fame for her discovery of the most complete fossil skeleton of T. Rex in 1990, in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She built up one of the largest collections of conch pearls in the world, during her diving expeditions to the Caribbean.
The cultured pearl industry has dominated the pearl markets for more than eight decades. However, recently pearl markets have observed a surge in popularity of natural pearls, initially indicated by the strong auction market for pieces of jewelry containing old natural pearls. The table below shows the trend in prices recorded by natural pearls/pearl jewelry at public auctions conducted by international auction houses during the period 1969 to 2009. The increased trend begins in 1986 with the sale of the Mona Bismarck double-strand pearl necklace for USD 410,000 and reaches a climax in 2007, with the sale of the double-strand Baroda pearl necklace for USD 7,096,000. The latest record sale was in March 2009, when the Pearl Carpet of Baroda sold for USD 5,500,000.
Table of some famous natural pearls/pearl jewelry sold at public auctions conducted by international auction houses, giving the date of auction and the prices realized, during the period 1970 to 2009
|S/N||Name of pearl/pearl jewelry||Probable period of origin||
|date of auction||Price realized|
|1||La Peregrina||1513||203.84 grains||1969||USD 37,000|
|2||Mancini pearls||1500-1600||400 grains||Oct.1979||USD 253,000|
|3||Mona Bismarck 2-strand pearl necklace||1920-1930||Double-strand of 70 pearls||May 1986||USD 410,000|
|4||Duchess of Windsor pearl necklace||1910-1936||Single-strand of 28 natural pearls. Total weight 1266.33 grains||April 1987
|5||Empress Eugenie tiara||1853||212 pearls, 2,520 grains||Nov 1992||USD 650,000|
|6||Nina Dyer black pearl necklace||1950s||151 natural black pearls||Nov 1997||USD 913,320|
|7||Barbara Hutton pearls||1600-1666||44 natural pearls, total weight of 1,816.68 grains||May 1992
|8||Unidentified natural pearl necklace by Cartier||Historical provenance not revealed||Double-strand necklace with 88 natural pearls||Nov 2004||USD 3,100,000|
|9||La Regente||1811||302.68 grains||Nov 2005||USD 2,483,968|
|10||Gulf pearl parure designed by Harry Winston||1932-1978||Nov 2006||USD 4,100,000|
|11||Baroda pearl necklace||1856-1870||Double-strand with 68 natural pearls from the original 7-strand necklace||April 2007||USD 7,096,000|
|12||Umm Kulthum pearl necklace||1880||nine-stranded necklace with 1,888 pearls||April 2008||USD 1,390,000|
|13||Pearl necklace from an unidentified notable collection||Historical provenance not revealed||Single-strand necklace with 41 natural pearls||Nov 2008||USD 1,321,110|
|14||Unidentified pearl and diamond festoon necklace||Historical provenance not revealed||Nine-strand pearl and diamond festoon necklace. Length 645mm to 1060mm||Nov 2008||USD 946,610|
|15||Pearl Carpet of Baroda||1860||1.5-2.0 million natural seed pearls||March 2009||USD 5,500,000|
Historical provenance of the pieces above would no doubt have had an impact on the prices recorded, however, the nostalgia associated with the owning of natural pearls of ancient origin, in a world dominated by cultured pearls, coupled with the scarcity of such pearls in the markets, also seem to have played a significant part in determining these enhanced prices. It is a well known fact that in the international gem trade, prime emphasis is always placed on the natural provenance of a gemstone, be it diamonds, rubies, sapphires, padparaschas, or pearls. The highest prices are always paid for gemstones of pure natural origins, with a remarkable drop in prices when evidence of any treatment or enhancement emerges. This applies equally well for pearls too, natural pearls always commanding premium prices, in comparison to cultured pearls. Even though cultured pearls are also without any doubt natural, human intervention in their creation, seems to have unfairly depreciated their value. This was clearly revealed when a cultured pearl model of the U.S. Capitol building, belonging to the United States Capitol Historical Society, made up of a total of 217, 569 cultured akoya pearls, was put up for auction on behalf of the society, by the auction house Sloans & Kenyon, on November 5, 2005. The pre-sale estimate of this magnificent creation was placed at a modest $100,000 to $125,000, even though some experts had valued it previously at $640,000. Yet, the highest bid achieved at the auction was only $90,000, short of the reserve price, and the item was withdrawn from the sale.
In keeping with the increase in demand for natural pearls, there had been a resurgence in the popularity of conch pearls too, mainly because these pearls were all natural, and attempts to culture them had failed due to the sensitivity of the sea snails and difficulty in gaining access to the pearl producing area of the snail, due to its spiral shape. Other factors that might also have contributed to the popularity of conch pearls, in combination with their natural provenance, are their rarity, the array of colors in which they are available, the flame structure in the pink and white forms of the pearls, and the hardness and resistance of the pearls in comparison to pearls from other sources. Conch pearls are formed in a variety of colors such as pink, white, yellow, brown and golden, but the most sought after color is a salmon-colored orange-pink. The spectacular flame structure in the pink and white varieties, that produces a shimmering effect on the surface, is a chatoyant effect caused by the calcite microcrystalline fibers that form bundles arranged in concentric layers in a lamellar fashion. It is this unique chatoyancy that imparts a special beauty on these pearls, that has called for the reclassification of conch pearls as "true pearls" by eminent specialists in the field such as the director of the GIA in Bangkok, Mr. Kenneth Scarrat.
Part of the credit for the resurgence of conch pearls should undoubtedly go to the foremost authority on conch pearls in the world today, Susan Hendrickson, who built up the largest and most valuable collection of conch pearls in the world, during her diving expeditions in the Caribbean, while based in countries like the Dominican Republic, Bahamas, Cuba and Honduras, all of which had thriving queen conch fisheries. Susan Hendrickson has gone into partnership, with the renowned Geneva-based jewelry maker Georges Ruiz, to popularize conch pearls, by designing conch pearl jewelry, which they believe would be the most popular pearl of the future.
The Queen Mary Conch Pearl Brooch is a prominent piece of conch pearl jewelry belonging to the Edwardian period, from 1901 to 1915. All aspects of this brooch, including its history, characteristics etc. are treated extensively in a separate webpage devoted entirely to the brooch. Please click here to enter this page - Queen Mary Conch Pearl Brooch.
Some other stunning pieces of jewelry, both contemporary and antique, incorporating conch pearls, will be considered in this webpage. These pieces appeared at sales of renowned auction houses, or were special pieces created by renowned producers of fine jewelry.
1) Conch Pearl and Diamond Ring - Bonhams auction on Dec. 6, 2009
2) Chopard's $351,000 Diamond Brooch - Launched by Chopard in February 2008.
3) Pair of Conch Pearl and Diamond Earrings - Sotheby's auction on July 22, 2008.
4) Diamond and Conch Pearl Bird Brooch - Sotheby's New York Sale - Sept. 25, 2008
5) Diamond and Conch Pearl Necklace - Sotheby's New York, Magnificent Jewels Sale, April 17, 2008.
6) Diamond and Conch Pearl Pendant Necklace - Christie's London Sale, February 27, 2008
The Conch Pearl and Diamond Ring is listed as Lot No. 2364 in the auction catalogue of the Bonhams & Butterfields annual holiday auction of natural history, coming up on Sunday December 6, 2009. at Los Angeles. The stunning ring (size 6 1/4) executed in platinum has as its centerpiece a bezel-set perfectly ovoid pink conch pearl, weighing approximately 5.97 carats or 23.88 grains. The pearl has a light pink color, and a spectacular shimmering effect of its flame structure. The conch pearl is surrounded by round brilliant-cut, pave-set diamonds, weighing approximately 0.72 carats. A pre-sale estimate of $5,000 to $7,000 has been placed on the ring. The value of the conch pearl would constitute at least 50% of the value of the ring.
Conch Pearl and Diamond Ring
Chopard's $351,000 stunning diamond brooch was unveiled in early February 2008, just in time for the Valentine's Day. As the name indicates this brooch is mainly a diamond brooch, but the centerpiece of the brooch designed as a daffodil flower is a pink conch pearl, which represents the corona of the flower. The daffodil flower has six floral leaves or segments in its perianth, three outer segments and three inner segments, made of titanium metal. The floral segments are adorned with rows of small white diamonds, and the base of these segments with red spinels. The color contrast of red spinels and white diamonds on the perianth, and the pink conch pearl as the corona, is spectacular. The value of the brooch mainly represents the value of the diamonds and spinels. The contribution made by the conch pearl to the overall value of the brooch is minimal, even though its contribution to the overall beauty of the brooch is phenomenal!
The US$351,000 Chopard's Diamond, Spinel and Conch Pearl Brooch
This magnificent piece of fine jewelry was created by Chopard in their best traditions, using handpicked gemstones and by painstaking hand-craftsmanship. The piece was said to be a perfect blend of glamour and femininity in a single package, to be cherished by women with discerning tastes.
The Pair of Conch Pearl and Diamond Earrings was listed as Lot No. 422 in the auction catalogue of Sotheby's London Sale LO8051, Important Jewels Antique and Contemporary, held on Tuesday, July 22, 2008. The conch pearls used on the pair of pendant earrings are perfectly matched for color, size, shape and luster. The color of the conch pearls is a deep-pink, one of the most sought after colors for such pearls. The shape of the pearls are oval or drop-shaped, and the size is almost identical. The beauty of the pearls are enhanced by their shimmering flame structure, which surpasses the iridescence of some nacreous pearls. The ear stud from which the pearl drops are suspended is made of platinum, and consists of hook fittings and a floret of four lobes mounted with round, single-cut diamonds, pointing to its antique provenance, probably originating during the Belle Epoque period (Edwardian period) from 1901 to 1915, a period when conch pearls were at the height of their popularity.
Pair of Conch Pearl and Diamond Earrings
The pre-sale estimate placed on this stunning pair of conch pearl and diamond pendant earrings was between £ 10,000 to £ 15,000 (GBP). However, at the time of the auction the item exceeded the pre-sale estimate realizing £20,000 with the buyers premium.
The Diamond and Conch Pearl Bird Brooch was listed as Lot No. 371 in Sotheby's auction catalogue published in anticipation of its New York, Important Jewels Sale NO8470, held on Thursday, September 25, 2008. The brooch based on the historic and favorite theme of animal brooches, is yet unique for its concept and design, two birds guarding a nest containing three eggs. The brooch is designed in yellow and white gold. The "eggs" inside the nest are represented by three perfectly spherical conch pearls, of three different colors, white, peach and rose, the only place in the brooch where conch pearls have been used. The feathers of the birds are pave-set with small round diamonds, whose total weight is 2.25 carats. The eyes are set with tiny round rubies, and a third ruby is placed outside the nest at its base. The nest, the branch or twig on which the nest rests, the feet, the beak and eyes of the birds are made of yellow gold. Except for the eggs, represented by conch pearls of three different colors, overall the bird brooch looks stunningly natural.
Diamond and Conch Pearl Bird Brooch
The pre-sale estimate placed on the brooch was $5,000 - $7,000. However, the price realized at the auction was $15,000, which was more than double, the upper estimate.
The Diamond and Conch Pearl Necklace, was listed as Lot No. 196 in the auction catalogue of Sotheby's New York Sale NO8430, titled Magnificent Jewels, held on Thursday, April 17, 2008. The design of the necklace, 16 inches long and executed in gold and platinum, is a meandering vine, with a central pendant-like portion, from which arises the two arms of the necklace. Three-leaf clovers and buds arise from either side of the vine. The three-leaf clovers are set with old European-cut diamonds, whose total weight is approximately 11.30 carats. The old cut of the diamonds provides evidence for the antique nature of the piece. The buds arising from either side of the vine, are made up of conch pearls. These pearls have various shapes and sizes. The shapes are round, near-round, oval, drop-shaped and elongated drop shapes. The size of the pearls vary from small to medium-size. Two of the largest pearls, oval or drop-shaped with a medium-pink color, are placed one at the end of the pendant-like portion, and the other at the point where the vine bifurcates into the two main arms of the necklace. All the colors in which conch pearls normally exist in nature, seem to be represented in the necklace. These colors are white, pale-pink, medium-pink, deep-pink, yellow or peach, brown and golden.
Meandering Wine Diamond and Conch Pearl Necklace
A pre-sale estimate of $60,000 to $80,000 was placed on the necklace, but it was withdrawn from the sale as it did not meet its reserve.
The Diamond and Conch Pearl Pendant Necklace was listed as Lot No. 5 in the Christie's auction catalogue, for Jewelry Sale No. 5376, held in London, on February 27, 2008. The necklace designed in 1905, is made up of an elaborate pendant suspended by a trace-link neck chain. The design of the pendant is like a wreath, surmounted by bow and set with old-cut diamonds. Four deep-pink conch pearls are suspended as drops from the pendant. The largest conch pearl drop is the centerpiece of the pendant and is suspended inside the wreath, by a bell cap arrangement mounted with old-cut diamonds. The three smaller conch pearl drops are suspended from under the diamond wreath, one at the center, and the other two on either side. A single spherical conch pearl is placed at the center of the bow surmount, from which the large conch pearl drop is suspended. The necklace is an antique piece designed in 1905, but the conch pearls are believed to have been added later.
Diamond and Conch Pearl Pendant Necklace
The pre-sale estimate for the diamond and conch pearl pendant necklace, was placed at £ 3,000 to 3,500. However the actual price realized at the auction was £ 3,750, which was slightly higher than the upper estimate.
You are welcome to discuss this post/related topics with Dr Shihaan and other experts from around the world in our FORUMS (forums.internetstones.com)
1) Queen Mary Conch Pearl Brooch
2) Susan Hendrickson's Conch Pearls
1) Bonhams Sale 17535 - Natural History, 6 Dec 2009. Lot No. 2364 Conch Pearl and Diamond Ring
2) Chopard does it again with diamond brooch - Haute Living. www.hauteliving.com
3) Chopard Diamond Brooch for Your Sweetheart - www.luxist.com
4) Chopard Watches History - www.watch-clone.com
5) Sotheby's auction catalogues - Sale NO8430, NO8470, LO8051
6) Christie's auction catalogue - Sale No. 5376
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