Culturing Conch Pearls Successful

(Photo: Sun Sentinel / June 9, 2009)

(Photo: Sun Sentinel / June 9, 2009)

The queen conch could prove to be a real jewel for Florida Atlantic University.

The plan: to use the marine animal to produce cultured pearls, and potentially make a lot of money with both sales and a patent on its newly developed technique.

The university's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute inPort St. Luciehas already produced 200 pearls during a test run in 2009 and received a $65,000 state grant in 2010 to accelerate the project.

The pearls have a porcelain finish and luster like the interior of the conch shell, and come in a wide variety of colors including white, red, pink, orange, yellow and brown. They are measured in carats like traditional gemstones.

"They're very striking in nature and very much a conversation piece," said Amanda Gizzi, a spokeswoman for Jewelers of America, a trade association.

Conch pearls are already on the market in their natural form. But they are extremely rare and expensive. Experts estimate only one in 10,000 conchs produces a pearl, and fewer than 10 percent of those are large enough and of high enough quality to be used for a gem.

The prices for natural pearls range from $200 to $2,000 a karat; the culturing process could cut the price in half, officials said.

Right now, FAU scientists are getting their tanks and conchs prepared. They plan to start seeding a large batch of conchs this summer for their first big harvest in the summer 2013. Jewelry could be on the market by late 2013, said scientist Megan Davis, co-inventor of FAU's patent pending technique.

"We will make sure the consumer understands the process is sustainable. We don't kill the animals in any of the process," Davis said.

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