The Purple Pearl
Golash Quahog Brooch
by Robert Genis
President of National Gemstone
The Purple Pearl
Alan Golash of Newport, Rhode Island, enjoys looking for and restoring antique jewelry for a living. He was browsing in an antique shop in 2000 searching for anything interesting. His eyes quickly caught a piece of jewelry sitting in a basket with other pieces that had never been given anything but a quick glance. The owner of the store said she bought the jewelry from an estate of an old ship captain. Golash paid $14 for a piece of what was believed to be costume jewelry. It turns out what he bought was a circle pin featuring a rare quahog (pronounced KO-hog) pearl. According to Golash, “When the story first broke, CNN and every radio and tv station around the world camped out in Newport. I believe the story was transmitted in 28 languages and I did over 100 radio interviews for two weeks.”
The brooch is believed to be a Victorian piece. It is made of 18-karat gold and enamel with three small rose-cut diamonds, featuring two natural quahog pearls. The largest purple pearl is 14 mm and weighs approximately 13 1/2 carats. The shape of the pearl is a button and looks like a purple M&M. The smaller one is a 4 carat teardrop. Both are similar in color. According to Golash, “I believe the piece is at least 150-200 years old. I speculate it was probably owned by the wife of a Captain of a clipper ship or whaling ship. They were the ones with financial ability to possess fine jewelry during that period of New England history.”
How Pearls are formed
As an oyster grows, its shell grows, too. The mantle produces the oyster's shell by using minerals from the oyster's food. The material created by the mantle is the nacre which lines the inside of the shell. Many people think that a small grain of sand is responsible for the formation of a pearl, but this is a misconception. The formation of a natural pearl begins when a parasite or foreign substance gets into the oyster between the mantle and the shell. This irritates the mantle. The oyster's natural reaction is to cover up that irritant to protect itself. The mantle covers the irritant with layers of the same nacre substance that is used to create the shell. This eventually forms a pearl. Cultured pearls are created by the same process as natural pearls, but occur because of a different stimulant. Pearl harvesters open the oyster shell, cut a small slit in the mantle tissue, and then insert small irritants to begin the process.
How Quahog Pearls are formed
The quahog pearl is not technically a pearl since it does not come from an oyster. The quahog is a thick-shelled member of the clam family and are simply called "hard clams" or "hard-shell clams." Quahogs can be found along the North American Atlantic coast from Canada's Gulf of Saint Lawrence to Florida. They are particularly abundant between Cape Cod and New Jersey. Golash states, “Quahogs that produce purple are only found in New England. You can search for quahogs in New Jersey but they are not purple.” Quahogs are similar to pearls in that the pearl is started by a parasite. Golash continues, “The difference is that the purple stain of the quahog colors the pearl, not the nacre. This is the same manner in which a conch pearl is created. Interestingly, anything that makes a shell can theoretically make a pearl under the right conditions.” In the past, quahogs were used by the American Indians as money or wampum. They would carve tubular purple beads to use for trading.
The purple pearl made its debut at the Tucson Gem Show 2005 and has plans to be exhibited in other shows and museums. The Smithsonian Institution is considering including it in its “Natural Pearls” exhibit.
Not so rare
Golash stated, “Since the story broke, people have been coming out of the woodwork with other quahog pearls. About 200 have surfaced and this has become a major issue on the internet among the antique crowd. Most are ugly and may be interesting for collectors only, but not for jewelry. Probably only 10 of the 200 have a pretty lavender purple color.” Quahog is the only clam, or bi-valve, that produces a purple stain. Sometimes the color is a light purple, but occasionally the purple gets too dark and becomes nearly black.
What is the value of the purple pearl? Some in the trade scoff at the projected value of this stone at $1 million and state it is simply marketing hype. According to Wes Rankin, President, Pacific Coast Pearls, Petaluma, California, “A natural round 14 mm Pearl would weigh 40-50 carats and would sell for at least $80,000-$100,000. You cannot really compare this to the purple pearl because it is a button. A natural button pearl is only worth a couple of thousand dollars. I wholesale purple Scallop pearls for a thousand dollars per carat.” According to Stuart Robertson, Research Director/Gemstone Editor of Gemworld International, Northbrook, IL, “The value of a museum quality round South Sea 14 mm cultured pearl this size would be approximately $8000-10,000.” In other words, the premium the purple pearl is asking is over 25-100 times the price of a round South Sea cultured pearl and an astronomical premium over a natural button pearl.
According to Golash, “I have sent the piece to both Sotheby’s and Christie’s. We will probably auction the piece in Hong Kong because the Far East is the primary market for pearls. I have been quoted from $250,000-$1 million as the value of the piece.” Golash hopes someone from New England will buy and keep the piece because of its historical importance.
In order for any gemstone to be valuable it must be beautiful, rare and desirable. Just because a gem is rare does not necessarily make it valuable. Does the purple pearl have value or is it a curious oddity? The true value of any gemstone is what a knowledgeable buyer and seller agree upon. Historical precedence is practically nonexistent in pricing quahog pearls. Only time will tell the true value of the purple pearl if and when it sells at auction. If it sells for what some people are projecting, many clam diggers will be especially attentive when they open their clams this summer. Whatever the outcome, the whole episode and the surrounding publicity has probably helped the pearl business in general.
This article is used by permission from Gemstone Forecaster
Go to main Quahog pearl page after Purple Pearl.