Back to a World of Jewelry
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CONCH PEARL:

CHAPTER 1 - FROM OBSCURITY TO LIMELIGHT


As part of Shira Ghaffari’s series of articles exploring the jewelry world, Federico Niki Vescovi delves into the peculiar history of the conch pearls.


Conch pearls are truly fascinating, produced by the gastropod Strombus gigas, or queen conch, they have no nacre, but instead contain aragonite, the principal constituent of nacre, in a different configuration. Technically, they are not a traditional pearl considering that they are deprived of the shimmering mother of pearl effect, but these natural pearls have a gorgeous pastel pink, coral like colour.

Commonly called “the pink pearl,” these gems are found in the Caribbean region and are exceedingly rare: about one in 10,000 conchs creates a pearl, and only 10% of these are gem-quality.

conche pearl

A conch pearl.

Historically, queen conch coral shells, have been used in jewellery for over 2000 years: first appearing in indigenous American burial mounds and ruins before becoming incredibly popular around the turn of the 16th century, when artisans, mostly Italian, began to use them to craft exquisite Cameo pieces.

A Victorian conch shell cameo depicting Diana at the hunt,

A Victorian conch shell cameo depicting Diana at the hunt, 19th century.

Unfortunately conch pearls were completely overlooked until the 19th century, surfacing very rarely in scarce testimonials such as Christopher Columbus’s logbook annotation which mentioned “la perla rosa”, the pink pearl, during one of his expeditions.

Significant references show that the first noteworthy appearance of the conch pearl occurred in the 19th century when they became part of the private collections of Mr. Henry Philip Hope, London banker, heir of the bank Hope & Co., and Mr. John Pierpoint Morgan, American financier, founder of the famous J.P.Morgan & Co..

John Pierpoint Morgan

John Pierpoint Morgan.

Henri Philip Hope

Henri Philip Hope

Both were jewelry connoisseurs and scrupulous collectors, but their interest for conch pearls lied more in the rarity of the gem rather than its beauty as they looked to complete their collection more than setting the pearls into pieces of jewelry.

Experts date the first conch pearls set jewels between 1840 and 1850, linking the gem’s popularity with the history of World Fairs, as in their heyday they were the perfect showcase for displaying fine jewelry, and the influence of Queen Victoria, keen lover of pearls, on high society’s style.

Natural queen conch pearl brooch

Natural queen conch pearl brooch, Victorian period.

 

Even though together they strongly contributed to the unprecedented demand for conch pearls, which all of a sudden became greatly in vogue, what cemented the gem’s fashionableness was undoubtedly the Art Nouveau movement.

Often inspired by natural forms such as the sinuous curves of plants and flowers, this style dominated jewelry from 1880 to 1910: the need for colourful and organic elements made the free-form shapes, shimmering striations and rosy pink colours of conch pearls a perfect fit into this new aesthetic.

Color litograph by Alphonse Mucha

Color lithograph by Alphonse Mucha.

 

It was during this time that Tiffany & Co., recognised leader in jewelry design, thanks to Mr. George Frederick Kunz, chief gem buyer and designer Mr. Paulding Farnham, crafted some of the most exquisite conch pearl set pieces.

George Frederick Kunz

George Frederick Kunz.

Mr. Kunz played a key role in the emergence of Tiffany as the leading jewelry firm in America: under his guidance the firm’s open-mindedness for new and exotic gems became a well rooted philosophy as his aggressive curiosity enabled Tiffany to find many unique gemstones.

Design genius, Mr.Paulding Farnham, was the men who elevated the firm’s style creating most of Tiffany’s conch pearl jewelry between 1887 and 1908, his artistic affinity for naturalism went beyond flora and fauna: he incorporated style elements that drew inspiration from Oriental and Aztec art as well as Native American motifs.

Paulding Farnham

Paulding Farnham.

SOME OF TIFFANY'S CREATIONS
Brooch set with conch pearl and diamonds by tiffany

Brooch set with conch pearl and diamonds, Tiffany & Co..

Caged pendant with conch pearl set with diamonds by tiffany

Caged pendant with conch pearl set with diamonds, Tiffany & Co.

Brooch set with natural pearls a conch pearl and diamonds by tiffany

Brooch set with natural pearls, a conch pearl and diamonds, Tiffany & Co.

In the late 1890’s it was the turn of another jewelry company to astonish the world with its conch pearl creations: Marcus & Co.. The company was founded in 1894 by master enameler, Mr. Herman Marcus, who had already gained notoriety in 1889 for his impressive skills displayed in the series of “orchid” brooches crafted for Tiffany & Co.

As one of the greatest practitioners of the plique-à-jour1 technique of that time, his ability to create extremely delicate and naturalistic pieces quickly made his company the number one maker of conch jewelry set in this style.

Conch pearl brooch with diamonds by Marcus

Conch pearl brooch with diamonds , Marcus & Co., ca. 1900.

Portrait of Herman Marcus

Portrait of Herman Marcus.

By the end of 1800 customers were craving conch pearl jewelry and not surprisingly, as numerous evidence shows, gem prices reflected the rapid spike in demand. Contemporary travel writing and official statistics depict a flourishing market of conch pearls taking place in in the late 19th century in Florida and Nassau: by the beginning of the 20th century, a fine gem could easily sell for $5.000, worth the equivalent of more than $100.000 today.

Diamond and conch pearl bracelet by cartier

Diamond and conch pearl bracelet, Cartier.

However, this period of prosperity didn't last long and by early 1918 the Bahamian Marine Products Board commented: “Pink Pearls may be said to have passed as an object of commercial interest”. In 1923, the last exporter of conch pearls retired from business, in just over a few years demand vanished.

Historians are divided on what caused such a sharp decline: some argue that it was linked to the end of the Art Nouveau era, others blame the 1929 market crash and others yet believe that the replacement of sailing vessels with coal-fired steamships brought the commercial need of conch shells as ballast to an end.

Truthfully there wasn't one event or a single factor that caused the decline of the conch pearl, but it took a number of conditions all happening at once to lead to the disappearance of conch pearls from jewelry showcases and it was not until the 1990’s that this beautiful gem came to light again.

In the next chapter we will delve into the rebirth of the wonderful conch pearl's popularity.

Milan, 2021

1Plicque-a-jour: a technique of enameling, where the enamel is applied in cells with no back to allow light to shine through.

SHARE THIS ARTICLE


SOURCES
  • The Pink Pearl, A Natural Treasure of the Carribbean, Skira, 2007.
  • The Metropolitan Museum of New York.
  • Tiffany & Co. Archives.
  • Gemological Institute of America.
  • Christie's.
  • Sotheby's.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Federico Niki Vescovi fine jewelry advisor profile photo shira ghaffari executive team
Federico Niki Vescovi

Fine Jewelry Advisor & Operations Director

Born and raised in the fine jewelry world, after studying law, Federico decided to pursue is passion for the fine arts. He joined the firm in 2015 and over the years acquired valuable professional expertise helping international clients grow and strengthen their position in the fine jewelry market.

Federico's thirst for knowledge and desire to be constantly up-to-date on market trends and new technologies whilst protecting cultural heritage have made him, over the years, a resourceful advisor with talented strategic thinking.

 


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JEWELRY DESIGN AND DEVELOPMENT

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JEWELRY DESIGN AND DEVELOPMENT


Back to a World of Jewelry
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CONCH PEARL:

CHAPTER 1 - FROM OBSCURITY TO LIMELIGHT


As part of Shira Ghaffari’s series of articles exploring the jewelry world, Federico Niki Vescovi delves into the peculiar history of the conch pearls.


Conch pearls are truly fascinating, produced by the gastropod Strombus gigas, or queen conch, they have no nacre, but instead contain aragonite, the principal constituent of nacre, in a different configuration. Technically, they are not a traditional pearl considering that they are deprived of the shimmering mother of pearl effect, but these natural pearls have a gorgeous pastel pink, coral like colour.

Commonly called “the pink pearl,” these gems are found in the Caribbean region and are exceedingly rare: about one in 10,000 conchs creates a pearl, and only 10% of these are gem-quality.

conch pearl

A conch pearl.

Historically, queen conch coral shells, have been used in jewellery for over 2000 years: first appearing in indigenous American burial mounds and ruins before becoming incredibly popular around the turn of the 16th century, when artisans, mostly Italian, began to use them to craft exquisite Cameo pieces.

victorian conch shell cameo depicting diana at the hunt

A Victorian conch shell cameo depicting Diana at the hunt, 19th century.

Unfortunately conch pearls were completely overlooked until the 19th century, surfacing very rarely in scarce testimonials such as Christopher Columbus’s logbook annotation which mentioned “la perla rosa”, the pink pearl, during one of his expeditions.

Significant references show that the first noteworthy appearance of the conch pearl occurred in the 19th century when they became part of the private collections of Mr. Henry Philip Hope, London banker, heir of the bank Hope & Co., and Mr. John Pierpoint Morgan, American financier, founder of the famous J.P.Morgan & Co..

John pierpoint morgan

John Pierpoint Morgan.

Henri philip hope

Henri Philip Hope

Both were jewelry connoisseurs and scrupulous collectors, but their interest for conch pearls lied more in the rarity of the gem rather than its beauty as they looked to complete their collection more than setting the pearls into pieces of jewelry.

Experts date the first conch pearls set jewels between 1840 and 1850, linking the gem’s popularity with the history of World Fairs, as in their heyday they were the perfect showcase for displaying fine jewelry, and the influence of Queen Victoria, keen lover of pearls, on high society’s style.

Natural queen conch pearl brooch

Natural queen conch pearl brooch, Victorian period.

 

Even though together they strongly contributed to the unprecedented demand for conch pearls, which all of a sudden became greatly in vogue, what cemented the gem’s fashionableness was undoubtedly the Art Nouveau movement.

Often inspired by natural forms such as the sinuous curves of plants and flowers, this style dominated jewelry from 1880 to 1910: the need for colourful and organic elements made the free-form shapes, shimmering striations and rosy pink colours of conch pearls a perfect fit into this new aesthetic.

Color lithograph by alphonse mucha

Color lithograph by Alphonse Mucha.

 

It was during this time that Tiffany & Co., recognised leader in jewelry design, thanks to Mr. George Frederick Kunz, chief gem buyer and designer Mr. Paulding Farnham, crafted some of the most exquisite conch pearl set pieces.

George Frederick Kunz

George Frederick Kunz.

Mr. Kunz played a key role in the emergence of Tiffany as the leading jewelry firm in America: under his guidance the firm’s open-mindedness for new and exotic gems became a well rooted philosophy as his aggressive curiosity enabled Tiffany to find many unique gemstones.

Design genius, Mr.Paulding Farnham, was the men who elevated the firm’s style creating most of Tiffany’s conch pearl jewelry between 1887 and 1908, his artistic affinity for naturalism went beyond flora and fauna: he incorporated style elements that drew inspiration from Oriental and Aztec art as well as Native American motifs.

Paulding Farnham

Paulding Farnham.

SOME OF TIFFANY'S CREATIONS
Brooch set with conch pearl and diamonds by tiffany
Brooch set with conch pearl and diamonds, Tiffany & Co..
Caged pendant with conch pearl set with diamonds by tiffany
Caged pendant with conch pearl set with diamonds, Tiffany & Co.
Brooch set with natural pearls a conch pearl and diamonds by tiffany
Brooch set with natural pearls, a conch pearl and diamonds, Tiffany & Co.

In the late 1890’s it was the turn of another jewelry company to astonish the world with its conch pearl creations: Marcus & Co.. The company was founded in 1894 by master enameler, Mr. Herman Marcus, who had already gained notoriety in 1889 for his impressive skills displayed in the series of “orchid” brooches crafted for Tiffany & Co.

As one of the greatest practitioners of the plique-à-jour1 technique of that time, his ability to create extremely delicate and naturalistic pieces quickly made his company the number one maker of conch jewelry set in this style.

Conch pearl brooch with diamonds by marcus

Conch pearl brooch with diamonds , Marcus & Co., ca. 1900.

Portait of Herman Marcus

Portrait of Herman Marcus.

By the end of 1800 customers were craving conch pearl jewelry and not surprisingly, as numerous evidence shows, gem prices reflected the rapid spike in demand. Contemporary travel writing and official statistics depict a flourishing market of conch pearls taking place in in the late 19th century in Florida and Nassau: by the beginning of the 20th century, a fine gem could easily sell for $5.000, worth the equivalent of more than $100.000 today.

Diamond and conch pearl bracelet by cartier

Diamond and conch pearl bracelet, Cartier.

However, this period of prosperity didn't’ last long and by early 1918 the Bahamian Marine Products Board commented: “Pink Pearls may be said to have passed as an object of commercial interest”. In 1923, the last exporter of conch pearls retired from business, in just over a few years demand vanished.

Historians are divided on what caused such a sharp decline: some argue that it was linked to the end of the Art Nouveau era, others blame the 1929 market crash and others yet believe that the replacement of sailing vessels with coal-fired steamships brought the commercial need of conch shells as ballast to an end.

Truthfully there wasn't one event or a single factor that caused the decline of the conch pearl, but it took a number of conditions all happening at once to lead to the disappearance of conch pearls from jewelry showcases and it was not until the 1990’s that this beautiful gem came to light again.

In the next chapter we will delve into the rebirth of the wonderful conch pearl's popularity.

Milan, 2021

1Plicque-a-jour: a technique of enameling, where the enamel is applied in cells with no back to allow light to shine through.

SHARE THIS ARTICLE


SOURCES
  • The Pink Pearl, A Natural Treasure of the Carribbean, Skira, 2007.
  • The Metropolitan Museum of New York.
  • Tiffany & Co. Archives.
  • Gemological Institute of America.
  • Christie's.
  • Sotheby's.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Federico Niki Vescovi fine jewelry advisor profile photo shira ghaffari executive team
Federico Niki Vescovi

Fine Jewelry Advisor & Operations Director

Born and raised in the fine jewelry world, after studying law, Federico decided to pursue is passion for the fine arts. He joined the firm in 2015 and over the years acquired valuable professional expertise helping international clients grow and strengthen their position in the fine jewelry market.

Federico's thirst for knowledge and desire to be constantly up-to-date on market trends and new technologies whilst protecting cultural heritage have made him, over the years, a resourceful advisor with talented strategic thinking.

 


OUR ORDER MANAGEMENT SERVICE


TITLE
SUBTITLE

BODY: Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum."