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Culture & Artsby Elizabeth Suman10:59 amNov 3, 20100

A rare conch pearl’s journey from the Caribbean to the Walters

Conches are sea snails native to the West Indies, but one of their most famous pearls lives in Baltimore.

Above: Conch-growing pens at Conch World

On a recent, frequent-flier-mile-financed trip to Turks and Caicos in the West Indies, a visit to the world’s only conch farm led me straight to Baltimore.

While for Westerners the conch most likely conjures up images of  a beautiful gift shop-shell held to the ear to produce the sound of the ocean, in Turks and Caicos, the slow-moving sea snail is a local treasure, mascot and dietary staple.

Conches are gastropods that crawl along the ocean floor guided by a tiny pilot fish that lives inside their shells and dies whenever the conch does, according to Christian, a Turks transplant from the Dominican Republic who took me diving for conch.

A live conch at Conch World (Photo by Elizabeth Suman)

A live conch at Conch World (Photo by Elizabeth Suman)

Their shells are gray and barnacle-encrusted while the conch is alive and only become pearly and clean after being scrubbed with bleach.

Natives of the West Indies (and Key West) are often proudly referred to as conches, and the parents of newborn babies who live near these conch-populated waters sometimes place a conch shell in their front yard to announce the new addition to the family.

After catching a conch, locals chop the small white edible portion of the snail into tiny pieces and mix them with lemon and red and green peppers to make a conch salad. Every year, Turks chefs compete to make the best conch fritters, soups and salads in the annual Conch Festival.

Turks is the home of Conch World, the only conch farm in the world, or, as the establishment affectionately refers to itself, “The World’s Only Sea Farm that raises Caribbean Queens fit for a King.”

The sea farm’s goal is to birth and raise the conch in a safe environment in order to sell it to white tablecloth restaurants for profit, educate people about the conch, and safeguard the creatures from the threat of extinction, which is caused by tourists who return to Dayton, Ohio, with too many of the beautiful creatures’ shells tucked In their luggage.

Conch-growing pens at Conch World

Conch-growing pens at Conch World (Photo by Elizabeth Suman)

Local fishermen who over-fish the animals and sell them to restaurants are the other threat to the species. It’s a lucrative business. One local conch and lobster fisherman sails around the Turks all day in a boat decorated with the phrase “Thanks God.”

Asked what’s driving the international demand for conch, Conch World CEO Chuck Hesse pointed east.  China has “300 million people who all love to eat conch,”  Hesse told a local Turks news station. Americans eat it too, he pointed out.

“The Little Caicos bank, which is only 60 miles in diameter, is supplying half the conch to all of North America,”  he said. To Hesse, the idea of conch farming as a way of protecting the  endangered gastropod seemed “obvious.”

Why am I regaling you with conch-centric  tales of  environmental conflict on a Caribbean island thousands of miles from Baltimore City?

Because hanging on the bubblegum pink wall of Conch World’s tiny gift shop is a photograph of beautiful pink conch pendant, one of the largest conch pearls ever found, and this rare piece of nature is housed in none other than the Walters Art Museum.

An article about the Walter's sautoir that hangs on the wall of the Conch World gift shop

An article about the Walter's sautoir that hangs on the wall of the Conch World gift shop (Photo by Elizabeth Suman)

According to the Walters, the necklace was made by Tiffany Co. in New York and is made up of conch pearl, platinum and diamonds.  Its measurements are 1.56 x 1.46 x 1.25 cm and it weighs 56 grams. The pearl originated in the West Indies and was harvested in the early 1900s.

According to Alicia Weisberg-Roberts, the assistant curator of 18th & 19th Century Art at the Walters, Henry Walters purchased the piece directly from George Kunz at Tiffany in 1905, and gave it to his niece, Laura F. Delano, a high society philanthropist and art collector.  Delano gifted the necklace, which is currently not on view at the museum, to the Walters in 1977.

The cage of the “sautoir” – a long, often Edwardian-era necklace with an ornament or pendant at the end – “opens up so that you can examine the exquisite pearl inside,” explained Dylan Kinnett, the manager of web and social media at the Walters Art Museum who first described the pearl to me via Twitter.

Sautoir with conch pearl pendant, ca. 1905

Sautoir with conch pearl pendant, ca. 1905, Walters Art Museum

“It’s a very beautiful and elegant thing in person…which has a lot to do with the gemological quality of the pearl,” said Weisberg-Roberts.

According to the gemologist’s report, the pearl has extraordinary “chatoyancy,” or “luster,” which refers to the cat’s eye iridescence of the pearl.  Conch pearls can’t be cultured, a process which involves using a fragment of shell and membrane to artificially produce the pearl, explained Weisberg-Roberts, “so you have to find them in the wild.”

Conch pearls “rank among the rarest of pearls” according to a history of Tiffany jewels by Claire Phillips.  They are almost always pink, though they fade to white when exposed to sun. In 1890, Tiffany’s gemologist George Frederick Kunz attributed the primary source of conch pearls to the West Indies and Key West.  The conch pearl trade skyrocketed in 1908, according to Kunz – right around the time Henry Walters acquired the pendant.

Weisberg-Roberts said that the pearl alone was worth around $5,000 at the time it was harvested, according to Kunz’s estimate, but that it would be impossible to estimate its current worth.

“It’s literally priceless because each of these pearls are so unique as was the setting that was made for it,” said Weisberg-Roberts.  “You couldn’t recreate this piece of jewelry under any circumstances…In that sense it’s priceless.”

A pre-hurricane news segment about Conch World and interview with CEO Chuch Hesse. The conch theater, Bare Naked Conch Cafe and many other parts of Conch World were destroyed by recent hurricanes.

A photo gallery of conches (All photos by Elizabeth Suman unless indicated)

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