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Conch Pearl
Pink Pleasure

Marine archeologist Sue Hendrickson was, until last year, a one-woman cartel for a little-known pearl found in a Caribbean univalve mollusk called a Queen conch (pronounced conk, as in honk). Now she shares her conch pearl monopoly with renowned Geneva, Switzerland, jewelry maker Georges Ruiz who is as convinced as his partner that this calcareous concretion (thatís what gemologists call natural pearls made of something other than nacre) is finally set for the fame that has long eluded it.

What, you might ask, are the signs of coming success for this pearl? Well, the signs are more like those that precede a storm than the storm itself. Firms like Boucheron and Damiani that have a sixth sense for a gemís imminent popularity are suddenly making conch pearl jewelry. Damiani client Brad Pitt even bought a conch pearl.

Big deal, you might be tempted to say, two designers do not a market make. But those familiar with the relatively uneventful history of conch pearl consumption know that the last time any major Hollywood icon paid serious attention to this pearl was in 1987. Thatís when Elizabeth Taylor, as much a friend to pearls as diamonds, was seen wearing a Harry Winston conch pearl earring and necklace suite. But Liz donned those pearls purely for publicity purposes. Pitt actually bought his. Just one celebrity purchase of a gem as rare and offbeat as the conch pearl can start a stampede in a world as hungry for fashion statements as Hollywood. So the Hendrickson-Ruiz conch pearl consortium has what it feels are ample reasons for optimism.

Yet one question bothers the pair as fame beckons. Why is fortune smiling on the conch pearl just when it is frowning on the queen conch? In an almost sadistic twist of fate, the conch pearl faces popularity at the same time that the gastropod which grows it faces extinction.

AN EDIBLE COMPLEX

Just 30 years ago, Queen conches dotted the ocean floor from Yucatan along the Cuba coast and Florida Keys, then eastward through the Caribbean basin as far as Barbados and north into the Atlantic Ocean up to Bermuda. Then when conch meat became a popular delicacy, hunters on giant trawlers moved in and turned the conchlands off of North, Central, and South America into killing fields. Today the slaughter has forced all but three conch-producing countries to ban or sharply limit Queen conch gathering. Meanwhile, conch pearls have become the most available ever as divers comb through millions of shell innards for the one in ten thousand with a fine gem suitable for jewelry.

Given the accelerated conch pearl accumulation of the last two decades, it is only natural that someone like Hendrickson would have wanted to make a thriving market in these variously mascara-pink, Advil-orange, and cafe-au-lait brown beauties with, at their best, prized flame-structure patterns on their surface. Donít get the wrong idea. The conch pearl has occasionally known acclaim, most notably when it became a minor stalwart of Art Nouveau and Edwardian jewelry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Conch pearls proved ideal for pieces which needed a gem to suggest pink floral buds and berries or to give blush-colored accents to platinum jewelry. New designs evoke that heyday.

Given the lack of interest in conch pearls after World War I, a monopoly in them would have been easy to make. Key West conch specialist Manuel Marcial encountered his first conch pearl in 1959 on San Bernado Island, 11 miles off the coast of Colombia, after spear fishing. A local fisherman offered him a conch pearl he had just found in exchange for Marcialís entire dayís catch of six lobsters. "A part of me felt I was getting the worst of the deal," Marcial, who was then a conch know-nothing, recalls, "but the pearlís beautiful pink color so captivated me I couldnít refuse."

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Conch Pearl