Pearl of Allah - Pearl of Lao Tzu - Pearl of Lao Tse

Origin of name

The Pearl of Allah

The Pearl of Allah, variously known as Pearl of Lao Tzu and Pearl of Lao Tse gets its name from its rather odd shape, which looked like a turbaned and bearded man, which the founders of the massive calcareous pearl in 1934 from the Island of Palawan in the Philippines, being Muslims, believed to be a representation of the Holy Prophet Muhammad himself, and therefore decided to name it the "Pearl of Allah." The miraculous pearl was actually discovered by a young Muslim pearl diver, who in his enthusiasm tried to retrieve the pearl from inside the open giant clam, Tridacna gigas, and in so doing his hands were caught in the cockles of the mighty mollusk, and met his untimely death. Subsequently, the diver's body and the giant clam were brought out of the water by his colleagues, and when the clam was pried open to release the hand of the unfortunate victim, the significant discovery was made.  The chief of the native Dayaks, whose young pearl divers  discovered the pearl off the coast of Palawan, at the expense of the life of one of their colleagues, believed that the discovery of the miraculous pearl was a blessing and mercy from God Almighty himself on the people of Palawan, and hence be named the "Pearl of Allah" being a gift by the Almighty to the people of Palawan. The story of the discovery of the pearl in Palawan was based on an article published in the November 1939 issue of the American Museum of Natural History's magazine, "Natural History" by Wilburn Cobb, who after several unsuccessful attempts in acquiring the pearl from the Dayak chief, was finally presented with the priceless piece of natural history, after he was able to save the life of the Chief's son from certain death, having contracted malaria, the scourge that devastated tropical lands in the 1930s and 1940s.


pearl-of-allah, Pearl of lao. Pearl of lao tse

Front view of the Pearl of Allah


The Pearl of Lao Tzu / Pearl of Lao Tse

The alternative name "Pearl of Lao Tzu" or "Pearl of Lao Tse" came to be applied to this odd shaped pearl only after the year 1969, when in the February 1969 issue of the Mensa Bulletin, Wilburn Cobb wrote another story associated with the origin of the unique pearl, in which he stated that one Mr. Lee from China appeared at an exhibition of the pearl at Ripley's Museum in 1939, and claimed that the pearl was the lost pearl of Lao Tzu (Lao Tse), based on an ancient Chinese legend. According to this legend the pearl was actually cultured inside a clam by human intervention 2,500 years ago. Just before his death Lao Tzu the founder of Taoism who lived in the 6th century B.C. instructed one of his disciples to implant a jade amulet, engraved with the faces of the Buddha, Confucius and himself, in a giant clam, which would serve as a nucleus for a cultured pearl, which would be symbolic for the co-existence of the followers of three great sages with different views. The clam was to be left undisturbed for 4 years, and by so doing peace and harmony was to be ushered in to the world. However, as the Pearl grew larger in size it was transferred into bigger and bigger clams that could accommodate the growing pearl. The pearl eventually came into the possession of Lee the ancestor of the present claimant and a direct descendant of Lao Tzu. It also became a symbol of sovereignty and power and wars were fought over it's possession. Finally the Lee family decided to hide the pearl by shipping it to Palawan in the year 1750, still inside its clam, and on its way was lost in a storm off the island of Palawan, where it was discovered by the Muslim diver in 1934. Wilburn Cobb further claimed in his article that the Mr. Lee offered $3.5 million for the pearl but he declined the offer. Mr. Lee then left Ripley's and was never seen again.


pearl-of-allah, Pearl of lao. Pearl of lao tse

Rear view of the Pearl of Allah


pearl-of-allah, Pearl of lao. Pearl of lao tse

Side view of the Pearl of Allah


Characteristics of the Pearl

Examination of the pearl by the Curator of Living Invertebrates at the AMNH

Wilburn Cobb took the giant pearl with him to the United States in 1939, and carried it to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, for examination and authentication by Roy Waldo Miner, the Curator of Living Invertebrates at the museum. After careful examination Miner authenticated the pearl as a genuine non-nacreous Tridacna pearl. He gave the weight of the pearl as 14.1 pounds (6.1 kg) and its length as 9.45 inches. Miner also mentioned in his report that as growth rates of giant clams were not known he was not able to give an estimate of its age. However, unlike true pearls which had regular shapes such as spherical, oval and drop-shape, this giant pearl was highly irregular, with convoluted surfaces, much like the brain tissue of a mammal, and had a matte, porcelain like surface, devoid of the iridescence of true pearls.

The pearl was subsequently put on display at the Ripley's believe it or not auditorium in New York City. The pearl was said to be the world's largest known pearl, and a value of $3.5 million was posted as its apprised value at the Ripley's Museum show.


The Pearl of Allah is a non-nacreous pearl

From a biological perspective the massive irregular shaped calcareous object can be considered as a kind of pearl, being a natural product of a shelled mollusk, the giant clam, Tridacna gigas. However from a gemological point of view, the giant pearl is considered as a non-nacreous pearl, lacking the iridescence of true pearls originating from pearl oysters and mussels. All species of bivalve mollusks are capable of producing pearls, but only a few can secrete a nacreous coating that has the attractive pearly luster of gem pearl. Only those pearls that have the luster and iridescence caused by nacre are referred to as "true pearls."

Unlike bivalved mollusks that produce nacreous pearls, the interior of the giant clam Tridacna gigas does not have the "mother of pearl" or nacre. Instead the inner shell layer is porcellaneous. Hence pearls produced by the giant clam are also porcellaneous, having the matte appearance of porcelain, lacking any iridescent effects. Given the enormous sizes of giant clams, non-nacreous pearls could grow to extraordinary sizes within the clams, like the "Pearl of Allah." Other species of Mollusks that produce non-nacreous pearls are the queen conch sea snail of the Caribbean, the horse conch Pleurocopa gigantea, the Melo melo shell fish found in the seas around China, Thailand and Vietnam, and the North Atlantic clam Mercienaria mercienaria.


What is Nacre ?

Nacre also known as  "mother of pearl" is an organic-inorganic composite material produced continuously by some mollusks (bivalves, gastropods and cephalopods) as an inner shell layer, that coats the inner surface of the shells, and secreted by the epithelial cells of the mantle tissue. The organic part of nacre is composed of a scleroprotein known as conchiolin and elastic biopolymers such as chitin and lustrin. The inorganic part of nacre is composed of calcium carbonate in the form of hexagonal platelets of aragonite or calcite (both crystalline forms of calcium carbonate), having a width of 10-20 µm and a thickness of 0.5 µm. The aragonite platelets are arranged in continuous parallel lamina and are separated by sheets of organic matrix composed of  conchiolin and elastic bipolymers. The combination of platelets and elastic biopolymers makes the material strong and resilient.


What causes the iridescence of nacre ?

The iridescence of nacre is caused by the thickness of the aragonite platelets which is comparable to the wavelength of visible light, resulting in constructive and destructive interference of different wavelengths of light falling on it, causing different colors of light to be reflected at different viewing angles, producing the iridescent effect.


How is a nacreous pearl produced ?

Pearls are produced inside the shells of certain bivalved mollusks, such as several species of clams, oysters and mussels. The layer of nacre that is produced continuously as an inner shell layer by these bivalved mollusks not only smoothens the internal wall of the shell, but also acts as a defense against parasitic organisms and damaging debris and waste material. When a mollusk is invaded by a parasite or irritated by a foreign object, which lodges in the outer tissue (mantle) of the organism, or between the outer tissue and the shell, a process known as encystation takes place, in which the parasite or the foreign object is surrounded by the secretion of concentric layers of nacre, leading to the formation of a blister pearl if formed between the mantle and the shell, or a free pearl if formed within the tissues of the mantle. Thus a pearl is actually formed by a bivalve mollusk as a defensive response to an irritant.

Common species of bivalves that produce pearls are the pearl oysters, found in warm and tropical seas, mainly in Asia, and freshwater pearl mussels, which live in rivers of the United States, Europe and Asia. The rate of deposition of nacre is very slow, but in most species its about 0.6mm per year. Moreover, pearls do not form in every pearl oyster. Their probability of occurrence is only about one in every 40 pearl oysters. The average life span of a Persian Gulf pearl oyster is about 3 to 11 years.  These statistics indicate that natural pearls are quite rare in occurrence, and that natural pearls of large size are extremely rare indeed. 


How is a non-nacreous pearl produced ?

A non-nacreous pearl is also produced essentially in the same way as a nacreous pearl, and is the end result of a defensive response to an irritant, such as a parasite or a foreign object. The only difference is that the species of Mollusk that produces the pearl does not secrete the iridescent nacre characteristic of nacreous pearls, but instead a substance that is chemically identical to nacre, consisting of a mixture of aragonite and calcite, which are crystalline forms of calcium carbonate, and the scleroprotein conchiolin, and the bipolymers chitin and lustrin. Unlike in nacre, aragonite does not from  hexagonal platelets with the required thickness comparable to the wavelength of visible light. Instead in non-nacreous pearls aragonite is deposited as needles which does not cause the scattering of light as the hexagonal platelets. Thus the organic-inorganic material that produces the pearl is not iridescent, but still has the luster of porcelain and is said to be porcellaneous.


The History of the Pearl after Wilburn Cobb

The world's largest natural pearl remained with its owner Wilburn Cobb until his death in 1980. Attempts made by Cobb to get a reasonable price for his rare natural treasure since he acquired it 1939, proved futile during his life time. The price tag of $3.5 million dollars placed by Cobb in 1939 at the Ripley's Museum show in New York City, and the story of the Chinese legend associated with the pearl and the claim that one Mr. Lee a descendant of Lao Tzu offered $3.5 million for it, a claim that was revealed only 30 years after it was first made in 1939,  was according to his critics a deliberate attempt by Wilburn Cobb to increase the value of his rare treasure by giving it a historical provenance dating back to 2,400 years.

After his death in 1980, when his estate was sold, the giant "Pearl of Allah" was purchased by Peter Hoffmann and Victor Barbish for $ 200,000. In spite of its celebrated status as the largest natural pearl in the world, this was the highest price ever realized by the pearl that has gone down on record. However, according to a Colorado Springs gemologist Michael Steenrod, the fact that Peter Hoffmann and Victor Barbish purchased the pearl for only $200,000 was a matter of luck and a fluke, as the heirs of Wilburn Cobb would have decided to let it go for such a ridiculously low figure, perhaps because during 40 years of the pearl's ownership by Wilburn Cobb it was never able to realize a price as high as $200,000.


Staggering appraisals for the value of the pearl

During his life time Wilburn Cobb estimated the value of the pearl to be around $3.5 million. In fact in an introduction to an article which he wrote in the February 1969 issue of the "Mensa Bulletin" he stated that if Mensa could broker a sale for $3.5 million, it would get a much needed injection of funds in the form of a finder's fee worth 5%, which works out to $175,000.

In the year 1982, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the world's largest natural pearl was valued at $40 million to $42 million, by Lee Sparrow of San Francisco Gem Laboratory. According to this appraisal the pearl had been subject to carbon dating previously and was found to be approximately 600 years old. The date of the test and the laboratory where the carbon dating was done are however not provided. In any case the age of 600 years which appears to be a reasonable finding for a pearl produced by a giant clam, immediately contradicts the Lao Tzu version of its origin, according to which the pearl is 2,400 years old.

Michael Steenrod, a Colorado Springs gemologist, on a request by the Colorado courts appraised the value of the pearl at $60 million in the year 2005, based on the 1982 appraisal of Lee Sparrow, after the pearl was involved in a court case subsequent to the murder of the wife of one of the owners of the pearl. The appraisal was revised again in 2007 at the end of the appeals of the said case, by Michael Steenrod, taking into consideration the inflationary trends and valued at $93 million.

However, according to some pearl experts like Jeremy Shepherd  the appraisals of Lee Sparrow and Michael Steenrod were exaggerated and far from credible.


The Legend of the Pearl of Lao Tzu - truth or fabrication ?

The legend of the Pearl of Lao Tzu, is just another legend and may or may not be true. Comparison of the details of the legend with established facts of history and science clearly show that this legend is a fabrication.

According to the legend the pearl was cultured in a giant clam 2,500 years ago by implanting a jade amulet into the clam which acted as the nucleus of the pearl. However, pearls were first cultured in China only in the 13th century, and were blister pearls cultured inside mussels. Such pearls were also known as mabe pearls. A mabe pearl is a hemispherical shaped pearl which is grown against the inside of the oyster's shell, rather than within its tissue. In culturing a mabe pearl the nucleus is implanted between the mantle and the inner surface of the shell of the mussel or oyster. A hemispherical pearl is developed, with a flat back attached to the shell. Culturing of whole pearls was not understood until the turn of the 20th century, and the method was perfected only in Japan between 1907 and 1916, when Kokichi Mikimoto adopted the technique developed by Mise and Nishikawa, in which the nucleus is implanted in the tissue of the mantle or the gonads. However, A giant clam has never been successfully grafted to produce a pearl. Thus the story of the amulet being grafted inside the giant clam is scientifically untenable and appears to be a fabrication.

An average life span of  a giant clam in the wild is a little over a hundred years. But according to the legend the pearl is over 2,500 years old. To overcome this discrepancy, the legend says that as the size of the pearl increased, the pearl was transferred into bigger and bigger clams, until finally it was discovered in 1934 off the coast of Palawan. If this story is to be believed, between 6th century B.C. and 1934, the pearl would have been transferred from clam to clam at least 25 times, and would have involved people of more than 25 generations, as the average life span of a human being is much less than 100 years. Moreover after the giant clam was lost in the sea off the coast of Palawan in 1750, transferring of the pearl from clam to clam would have stopped. Thus the clam discovered off the coast of Palawan would have been at least 184 years old, which is much higher than the average life span of a giant clam. This gives us enough scientific and mathematical evidence to reject the legend of Lao Tzu as a fabrication.


The Legend of the Pearl of Allah - fact or fiction ?

Are Giant Clams Dangerous ?

According to the Legend of the Pearl of Allah, the miraculous pearl was discovered by a young Muslim pearl diver from Palawan, who met with an untimely death in trying to retrieve the pearl from the clam, when the valves of the clam snapped shut trapping his hand. Let us examine this claim scientifically to verify whether the occurrence of such an event is possible in giant clams.

Giant Clam Tridacna Gigas

A Giant Clam (Tridacna Gigas)

The giant clam is the largest living bivalve mollusk in the world whose scientific name is Tridacna gigas It is found in the shallow coral reef of the South Pacific and the Indian Oceans. The Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland in northeast Australia, the largest coral reef system in the world, and the shores off the Philippines are two places where they are commonly found. Giant clams can grow up to a weight of more than 200 kg, measuring as much as 1.2 meters across. They have an average life span of 100 years or more in the wild. They are sessile in adulthood and lie with the hinge downward in the coral reefs, usually in shallow water. The clam has established a symbiotic relationship with single-celled dinoflagellate algae living in the clam's mantle and siphon. The clam gets most of its nutrition from the algae, which manufactures its own food by photosynthesis in the presence of sunlight. The clam usually lies with its valves opening upwards, exposing the mantle tissue to sunlight, enabling the algae to photosynthesize. Unsubstantiated stories of parts of the human body being trapped by giant clams, have given it the notorious name as the killer clam or the man-eating clam. While theoretically a giant clam is capable of holding one's limbs in its grip, practically the process of closing the shell valves is too slow to pose a serious threat to divers. Thus, a giant clam is not capable of suddenly snapping shut on a person's arms or legs, as is commonly believed. Therefore the giant clam is not considered anymore as an aggressive or dangerous undersea creature. In fact there is not a single substantiated incident in which the cause of death of a diver can be directly attributed to a giant clam. Thus the story of the young Muslim diver sacrificing his life in his attempt to retrieve the giant pearl appear to be a fabrication.


Were the Dayak tribe of Palawan Muslims ?

The Dayak tribe to whom the discovery of the pearl is credited are actually indigenous people from the neighboring island of Borneo who settled in the southern regions of Palawan in the 12th century. Previously the Dayaks were animist in belief but later converted to Islam. The Dayaks who settled in Palawan were Muslims and had their own local Muslim chiefs, but they came under the domain of the Sultanate of Borneo. However, by the mid-18th century the entire Island of Palawan came under the rule of the Spanish colonizers. After the Spanish left in 1898, the Americans took over the administration of the Island. At the time of discovery of the Pearl of Allah, in 1934, Palawan was still under American rule, with Muslims making up the majority of the population in the far south of the island, even though in other regions of Palawan, Roman Catholicism was the main religion. Thus the story that the giant pearl was found by Muslim divers and later became the property of the local Dayak chief may still be true.


Did the Dayak Chief christen the giant pearl as the "Pearl of Allah" ?

Again, the reverence with which the stone was held by the Dayaks, and subsequently christening it as the "Pearl of Allah" have been called into question by historians, who believe that if the Dayaks were Muslims they would not have given any undue respect to a pearl just because it appeared like a turbaned and bearded Muslim. Islam forbids the visual representation of the Holy Prophet Muhammad in any form, either as a drawing, a painting or sculpture, lest that people would ascribe divinity to the Prophet and begin worshipping him, instead of the almighty Allah who is divine and deserves to be worshipped. Thus the story that the pearl appeared like a representation of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, and hence was called the "Pearl of Allah" by the Dayak chief, appears to be a fabrication. In fact the Dayak chief did not regard the pearl as a religious artifact, and had no special regard or reverence for it. That was precisely the reason why he decided to part with the pearl, when his son was cured of the deadly malaria that afflicted him, and thus Wilburn Cobb became the proud owner of the giant pearl. Had the so-called "Peal of Allah" had any special religious significance for him he would never have parted with it, and perhaps the stone would have still remained in Palawan or in neighboring Borneo.


Involvement of the "Pearl of Allah" in celebrated court cases

After Victor Barbish and Peter Hoffmann acquired the "Pearl of Allah" for $200,000, following the sale of Wilburn Cobb's estate, after his death in 1980, Barbish took a loan from Joseph Bonicelli, a bar owner from Colorado Springs and as collateral gave him an interest in the pearl. In the year 1990, Bonicelli sued Victor Barbish in the courts of Colorado Springs, with a view of recovering his loan. The pearl featured prominently in this case as it was used as the collateral to cover the loan. During the proceedings of this case both the Lao Tzu story and the Pearl of Allah story became part of the legal record of this case as counsel used the stories to establish a value for the pearl by giving it an ancient historical provenance. Eventually, the court ruled that the three men, Peter Hoffmann, Victor Barbish and Joseph Bonicelli, were equal partners in the pearl, and ordered the pearl to be sold and the proceeds divided equally between them. However, the order of the court was apparently not carried out possibly because of the inability to find a prospective buyer at the estimated value of the pearl

Bonicelli died in 1998, and soon after his death, the pearl featured prominently again in another legal entanglement, this time a sensational murder case, in which Bonicelli was directly accused of plotting to murder his wife in 1975. Eloise, Bonicelli's wife was murdered in her house in 1975, by an unknown assailant. Investigations conducted by the police was not able to identify the assailant or establish a motive for the gruesome murder. Eventually, the murder was listed under unsolved mysterious murders, and remained so until 1998, when after the death of Bonicelli, the assailant himself confessed to the crime. Delfino Ortega, a local barber confessed that he murdered Eloise in 1975, and that he was paid $10,000 by Bonicelli for executing the crime. Thus, Bonicelli was directly accused of conspiring to murder his own wife. When Bonicelli's children by Eloise learnt about the complicity of their own father in the murder of their mother, they brought a wrongful death suit against their late father, and pleaded for the court's intervention in legally allocating Bonicelli's share of the pearl to them as compensation. The Colorado courts ruled in favor of the children in the year 2005. On appeal the judgment of the previous court was confirmed  in May 2007, and the court ordered that the pearl be sold again, based on a 2007 appraisal of $ 93 million by Michael Steenrod, a Colorado Springs gemologist, and one-third of the proceeds of the sale be given to Bonicelli's children.

Barbish's claim of offers for the pearl

Victor Barbish who owns a one-third share in the pearl had claimed that several interested parties had made offers for the pearl since he and his colleague Peter Hoffmann had purchased it after Wilburn Cobb's death in 1980.

In the year 1983, he claimed that another member of the Lee family from China, who previously claimed that the pearl was the lost pearl of Lao Tzu, appeared in Pasadena, California, and made an offer for the pearl having reiterated the legend of Lao Tzu. However his offer was turned down, and he too disappeared like the previous Mr. Lee and was never heard of again.

According to Mr. Barbish President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines had expressed interest in the pearl in 1986, but unfortunately his fall from power prevented the sale from taking place.

But, the most intriguing of all these claims appears to be the one purported to have been made by the international fugitive Osama bin Laden, who in 1999 attempted to purchase the Pearl of Allah for $60 million through a third party, which  was  to be given as a gift to President Saddam Hussein in order to "unite the Arab cultures," and as an overture of unity between Al-Qaeda and the Government of Iraq, which Hussein was prepared to accept, according to Victor Barbish. The third party however denied that this ever happened. Barbish sued the third party and the case was later dismissed. Critics say that the story was created by Barbish in order to provide the much-sought after link between Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda and the government of Saddam Hussein, that would have provided the justification for the invasion of Iraq. The September 11 commission reported in June 2004, that it found no collaborative relationship between Iraq and Al-Qaeda, challenging one of Bush administrations justifications for the war in Iraq.


The position of the "Pearl of Allah" in the Muslim world

Even though in the Non-Muslim World the "Pearl of Allah" is regarded as a religious artifact of great significance to the Muslim World, based on Wilburn Cobb's legend of the Pearl of Allah, published in the magazine "Natural History" of the AMNH, New York City, in November 1939, in the Muslim World itself, the so-called "Pearl of Allah" is treated with scant respect. In fact many in the Muslim World are not even aware of the existence of such a miraculous pearl. The educated elite in the Muslim World, who may be aware of the existence of such a pearl, which appeared like a turbaned and bearded figure, believed to be a representation of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, do not attach any religious significance to this pearl, and consider it as a non-entity. This is because Islam forbids the visual representation of the Holy Prophet Muhammad in any form, be it a drawing, painting or sculpture, lest the people would ascribe divinity to the Prophet and begin worshipping him, instead of almighty God, who is divine and deserves to be worshipped. This is in keeping with the injunctions of Islam, that strictly prohibits idol worship of any form. Thus, the so-called "Pearl of Allah" has no value in the Muslim World. This explains why the Dayak Chief of Palawan decided to part with it, giving it as a gift to Wilburn Cobb for saving his son's life. This also explains why Victor Barbish's claim that Osama bin Laden attempted to gift the "Pearl of Allah" to President Saddam Hussein in order to unite the Arab cultures, and as an overture of unity between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein failed to have the desired effect. Perhaps, this may also explain why no offer had been made so far by any of  the rich oil sheiks of the Middle-East to purchase the miraculous pearl, the so-called "Pearl of Allah."


1.The Pearl of Allah : The Facts, the Fiction and the Fraud - Caitlin Williams and Kathie Hodson,  
2.Pearl of Lao Tzu - From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  
3.Nacre - From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
4.Pearls - Composition and Chemistry -  
5.Pearl - Website of the Department of Geological Sciences, The University of Texas, Austin. 
6.Palawan - From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
7.Dayak People - From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

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