Featured Articles Marine biologists develop method for creating cultured conch pearls

Marine biologists develop method for creating cultured conch pearls

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For more than twenty five years researchers and marine experts have attempted to produce cultured conch pearls. Not until recently has anyone been successful. Two marine biologists at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University have, for the first time, consistently cultivated conch pearls.

Considered among the rarest pearls in the world, all previous attempts at seeding conchs failed. Far rarer than the finest Akoya pearl, it takes about 10,000 queen conchs to find even one conch pearl, and only 1 in 100 of those is gem quality. But, thanks to the diligent research efforts of Doctor Megan Davis, associate executive director at Harbor Branch, and Doctor Héctor Acosta-Salmón, a new, innovative method of seeding the queen conch now produces an 80 percent success rate.

“For years I lived in the Turks and Caicos Islands helping develop methods to raise queen conch for food. There was some interest in growing pearls but many researchers tried and failed,” recalls Dr. Davis “My interest in conch pearls was peaked when I co-founded the world’s first conch farm in those islands, but it took another twenty years to finally put effort behind that interest.”

Heading back to the states to continue her research, Dr. Davis brought her extensive experience to the Harbor Branch scientific team in Fort Pierce, Florida. She continued to work with conchs as well as spiny lobsters and marine fish. In 2006 she tapped Acosta-Salmón to join her at Harbor Branch due to his extensive experience with pearl oysters. Together the pair perfected the seeding process for queen conchs.

“I hired Hector for his experience with pearl oysters and challenged him to work with me to develop these techniques with conch. I knew the animal, he knew pearl oysters. Together we created a breakthrough in the seeding and retention process,” states Davis.

Although any conch, male or female, can produce a pearl, Davis and Acosta-Salmón chose to use queen conchs because they provide pinker pearls. Conch pearls are formed similar to oyster pearls, which start with a ball of nacre. What has been excessively difficult about cultivating a conch pearl is the inability to reach the pearl without harming the animal, and Davis and Acosta-Salmón will keep their methods on that subject secret.

Today, their two years and nearly $500,000 worth of research produces cultivated conch pearls, both nucleated and non-nucleated, at least 80 percent of the time. With colors that vary in shades of creamy white, pink, coral and orange, the cultivated conch pearls are expected to follow the oyster pearl market going for one-third to one-half the price of natural conch pearls.

Working closely with GIA in grading and classification aided the process. Unlike oyster pearls, conch pearls are measured by the carat; in their natural environment most average less than 3 carats making anything larger a rare find.

Because they are so rare, finding natural conch pearls that match in size or color is extremely time consuming, difficult and expensive.

 

 

Conch-Pearl-all-Mar
Conch pearls are formed by concentric layers of fibrous crystals, and this layering often produces the desired flame structure, which is characteristic of conch pearls. The pearls have a porcelain finish and luster like the interior of the conch shell, and come in a wide variety and combination of colors including white, red, pink, orange, yellow and brown. Queen conch pearls are measured in carats like traditional gemstones.
With less than two years of research, Drs. Héctor Acosta-Salmón and Megan Davis, co-inventors, have produced more than 200 cultured pearls using the techniques they developed. The size of the cultured pearls they produced is controlled by the size of the bead and the culture time. These researchers have experimented with culture times from six months to two years; longer culture times may produce larger pearls.
The queen conch is the largest molluscan gastropod of the six conch species found in the shallow seagrass beds of Florida, the Bahamas, Bermuda, the Caribbean Islands, and the northern coasts of Central and South America.

 

“We are excited about this breakthrough not only because it will draw significant attention to the entire conch pearl market, but also because consumers will be able to obtain pearls that match in size and color easier than before. We foresee an extensive market for both the natural and cultured conch pearl industry,” states Davis.

Looking ahead, Dr. Davis wants to educate the general public about conch pearls while, at the same time, establishing a privately-held company called Rose Pearl with Dr. Acosta-Salmón and other partners. Her goal is to generate a steady supply of cultivated conch pearls. It takes one year to make a two or three carat conch pearl, which is about the size of a green pea. But with 200 pearls already produced from her research and GIA’s grading process finalized, the only thing Dr. Davis needs is funding to get Rose Pearl running at full speed.

“The most exciting part to all of this is that there will be a market for both the natural and cultured conch pearl. The natural pearl will benefit from having the cultured pearl on the market because it will highlight its value.”

For additional information regarding cultured conch pearls contact Gisele Galoustian at 561-297-2010 or e-mail her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 
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