By Daisy Tinker
Conch pearls, or 'pink pearls' as they're often known, are one of the rarest and most valuable types of pearl in the world. Created in the shell of the Queen conch mollusc - a large sea snail found in the Caribbean and South Florida - attempts to culture them have so far been unsuccessful, which means each and every one has been formed naturally. Harvested by teams of fisherman, a single, elusive conch pearl is found in every 10-20,000 shells, although only around 1% of these are gem quality. This, together with its unusual colour, makes the conch pearl extremely desirable.
Unlike pearls harvested from oysters, conch pearls are not made of nacre, so they are not technically a pearl, athough they are still referred to as such. Formed from calcareous concentration in the mollusc - similar to kidney stones in humans - they have a porcelaneous appearance and a unique shimmer. Oval in shape, they come in a variety of colours, ranging from white, beige, yellow and brown to red and - the most coveted - pink. Many of the highest-quality conch pearls also display a unique flame structure, like the David Morris ring above - a weave effect of lighter and darker areas on the surface caused by the formation of aragonite fibres. The size, shape, colour and flame effect of the conch pearl determine its price.
Mikimoto, the Japanese pearl specialist, recently launched a suite of jewels incorporating elegant conch pearls, in which the flame patterning is clearly visible. The earrings display two identical pearls - no mean feat given their rarity. Parisian jeweller Boucheron uses a similar combination of gemstones in its "Victoria" earrings and ring: salmon-coloured conch pearls alongside sparkling diamonds. Currently on display at Boucheron's new boutique in Harrods, the luxury London department store is working in conjunction with the V&A museum to display key pearl pieces from a selection of jewellery houses in the run up to its Pearls exhibition, which opens next month.
Though pink pearls are most commonly used in jewellery, other shades of conch pearl can also make for spectacular and highly unusual creations. In 1995 Hemmerle created the naturalistic Tarantula brooch. The abdomen of the venemous spider has been recreated using a 111.76ct dark brown conch pearl - one of the largest and rarest ever found - while the body is made up of natural coloured fancy shaped Umba sapphires. This one-of-a-kind brooch is among the many unique pieces of pearl jewellery that will go on display at the V&A this September.
Read more about the world's rarest pearls