When I watch Antiques Roadshow I usually learn something new but seldom retain it. This week, however, not only did I learn something new but I actually retained it, and was so fascinated by it I had to find out more and pass on this little gem of knowledge – or pearl of wisdom, if you will.
A while ago – two years, actually! – I wrote an article called A pearl is is pearl – right? and even though I knew I’d only scratched the surface of this huge subject, I thought that was it. How wrong I was. This week on the Roadshow I learned something about pearls I never knew. Do you know, for instance, what a Melo Melo pearl is? Did you know that Queen Conch shells make pearls? did you know that clams make pearls? I’m rushing ahead in my excitement, so I’ll start with the Melo Melo pearl.
Melo Melo Pearls
It turns out that oysters and mussels are not the only producers of pearls. The melo melo shell, which is home to a sea snail and found only in the South China sea and around Myanmar, Vietnam and Malaysia, also makes a pearl – sometimes. This ‘pearl’ is produced in the same way as an oyster pearl in that the animal in the shell protects itself from an irritant by surrounding it in a secretion. In oysters it’s nacre and this causes the lustre of pearls, but in a melo melo shell the secretion is non-nacreous and the pearl is more like porcelain in appearance. Also, it is fibrous and grows in perpendicular crystals which creates the most wonderful, and extraordinary, ‘flame’ in the pearl. Ranging from pale yellow through orange, to brown, it is the vivid orange pearls that are the most precious, and precious they are for two reasons; first, only one in several thousand melo melo shells produces a pearl, and secondly no one has managed to cultivate the pearls so the only ones available are the naturally produced, very rare ones. Interestingly, melo melo pearls are sold by carat weight and not diameter like oyster pearls, and you’ll need to be prepared to pay several thousand dollars per carat for one of these beauties.
Queen conch pearls
Next of the list of wonders is the Queen Conch (actually pronounced konk) pearl. I’ve seen conch shells in Kenya, but I’ve never seen a Queen conch which is a really big shell and comes from the Caribbean. The inside of this amazing snail shell is the most beautiful pink/peach colour which explains why conch pearls are pink and not white like oyster pearls, and their colour varies from pale blush pink to a lovely rose pink. Like melo melo pearls, conch pearls are non-nacreous and have the wonderful flame in them caused by the construction of the fibres in the pearl, and conch pearls are seldom round but more likely to be egg shaped or oval. So far no one has managed to successfully cultivate the conch pearls either and even though they are found more often than melo melo pearls, they’re still incredibly rare and therefore command extremely high prices. Sadly these creatures have been badly overfished and are now on the endangered species list, so the price gets pushed even higher, of course.
The third surprising and little known pearl is that from the giant clam. Clams and oysters are both mollusks but clams don’t produce pearls very often, and like the melo melo and conch pearls, they are non-nacreous. They are white though, like the oyster pearl, but do have the wonderful flame fibres in them. Less valuable than the other two wonders, they are still rare enough to fetch really high prices simply because they are so uncommon. It’s also rather nice that there are white pearls that are so different from the ones with which we’re all so familiar.
It’s so exciting to learn something completely new about a product I thought I was quite familiar with, and has given this magpie another new jewel to look out for as I flit about. Brilliant.