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Jewelry designer Chi Huynh has created cultured pearls with a precious secret: A colorful gemstone nucleus, which he reveals by carving away sections of the pearl


When visitors arrive in Caribbean ports of call, shopping is usually their first priority and Key West is no exception. There, some three dozen jewelry stores crammed in a 20-block area duke it out for tourist dollars. Given such jeweler congestion, survival often hinges on having one special something no one else has.

That's the formula for success at Key West Pearls: having an exclusive on one enormously popular line of jewelry. In this case, it's known as "Diamond in a Pearl." Owner John Pimentel says this jewelry featuring melee diamonds bezel-set in pearls has been his hottest item for four years straight—selling, on average, six pieces a day at prices between $350 and $2,000. And demand shows no sign of letup.

"Diamond in a Pearl" is the 1998 brainchild of Chi Huynh (pronounced win), whose company Galatea, based in San Dimas, California, 40 minutes east of Los Angeles, is known for pearl innovation. So popular is Huynh's jewelry that Pimentel's store has become a tourist attraction in itself. "People from the cruise ships make a beeline for this store because they've read or heard about ‘diamond-in-pearl' jewelry," Pimentel says. "It's just something they have to see while on shore in this town." No wonder Pimentel says he owes his store's success to Huynh.

Given the sustaining, soaring popularity of diamond-in-pearl jewelry, any announcement of a new product line from Huynh is of more than passing interest to Pimentel.

Last June at the Las Vegas Show, the designer debuted his latest innovation: "Mercy Pearls." You could consider these "gem-in-pearl" designs. But unlike diamond-in-pearl jewelry, where the diamond is set in a normal pearl, these pearls are actually grown with the gem inside. These are cultured pearls that have been nucleated with gems such as amethyst, citrine, and garnet and for which the pearl serves as an enclosure. You heard right. Huynh has dispensed with the traditional Mississippi clam-shell nucleus and substituted precious stones. "It would be silly to keep the gem inside the pearl a secret," he says.

Using gem centers in his pearls has forced Huynh to think of the pearl in a radical new way. For him, the pearl is no longer a gem suitable for mounting. It is a mounting. Or think of it like this: precious stones set in pearl. Still having trouble getting the gist of this new twist in pearl culturing? Well, imagine a black Tahitian pearl whose nacre has been peeled away in graceful curved or ribbed sections to expose a gem-bead core inside. The pearl is no longer a pearl per se but a sculpted object used to hold gems. As a setting, the pearl's beauty now depends as much on the skill of the carver who shapes it as it is for the luster, hue, and complexion bestowed upon it by nature.

Pimentel is near the top of a lengthening list of jewelers who are waiting for their first shipment of Mercy Pearls, right after the Tucson show this month. Somebody better tell him not to get his hopes up.

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oyster shell pendant by Galatea
Hand-carved black-lipped oyster shell pendant with 14k gold vine wrap, fancy color sapphire drops, and a citrine-nucleated Tahitian pearl at the bottom by Galatea, (800) 609-6888.
ring by Galatea
Diamond-studded egg-shaped 14k gold ring with an amethyst-nucleated Tahitian pearl set into the top portion by Galatea, (800) 609-6888.
pendant with amethyst and citrine by Galatea
Organically inspired pendant with amethyst and citrine in 14k gold with carved shell and citrine-containing Tahitian pearl by Galatea, (800) 609-6888.
Flower pendant by Galatea
Flower pendant in 14k gold with diamond centers and citrine-nucleated pear-shaped Tahitian pearl whose nacre has been carved to suggest flower petals by Galatea, (800) 609-6888.