The Bao Dai/Sunrise Pearl is without any doubt the world's largest, roundest and most perfect melo-melo pearl, with the most desired intense-orange color. It also holds the rare distinction of being the world's largest and most perfectly round pearl out of all nacreous and non-nacreous pearls. Apart from the Bao Dai/Sunrise Pearl, other melo-melo pearls of lesser sizes but of equally good quality and desirable colors have appeared at auctions conducted by renowned auction houses, and fetched moderate prices. Rare melo-melo pearls have also appeared at international gem and jewelry shows, like the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. A rare specimen is also found in the Phuket Sea Shell Museum, in Phuket, Thailand.
This webpage dedicated to some rare melo-melo pearls, considers the following pearls in detail :-
1) A 140-carat golden melo-melo pearl at the Phuket Sea Shell Museum
2) A 75.07-carat orange melo-melo displayed by Pala International at the 2009 Tucson Show.
3) A 57-carat orange-color melo-melo pearl that appeared at Bonhams Natural History auction in Los Angeles, on January 16, 2005.
The Phuket Sea Shell Museum, situated along Viset Road, Rawai Beach, Phuket, Thailand, and owned by the Patamakanthin family, who had spent a lifetime collecting sea shells from all over the world, houses one of the rarest melo-melo pearls in the world, known as the "Golden Pearl" perhaps because of its golden-yellow color. The pearl whose dimensions are not known, has an oval or egg-shape, and a weight of 140 carats. The golden-yellow color of this pearl is indeed very unique, and the beauty of the pearl is further enhanced by the spectacular shimmering effect on its surface, known as the "flame structure." Even though the pearl is non-nacreous, its beauty surpasses the beauty of most nacreous pearls, once again raising the question whether its classification under non-nacreous pearls, which are not "true pearls" is justified. Some serious re-thinking about the status of melo-melo pearls is required, after these rare "fireballs" of nature have come under the spotlight at public auctions, and are fetching competitive prices.
The Golden Melo Melo Pearl
The pearl originated in the Indian Volute or Bailer Volute, scientifically known as the Melo melo sea-snail, whose natural habitat is the sandy or muddy bottoms of the algal dominated infra-littoral and animal-dominated circa-littoral sub-zones of the sub-littoral zone, up to depths of 50 to 100 meters. The geographical range of the Melo melo sea-snail are the seas of the Southeast Asian region, such as the South China Sea, the Gulf of Thailand, the Andaman Sea, and the Bay of Bengal closer to Burma. The Melo melo sea-snail occurs in the coastal waters of Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines, and also off the coast of Northern Australia, in the South China Sea. This region is known as the Indo-pacific region. The golden-yellow melo-melo pearl in the Phuket Sea Shell Museum was discovered from a Melo melo sea-snail brought up by dredgers operated by trawlers, from depths of 40 to 80 meters, in the west coast of Phuket Islands.
The Phuket Sea Shell Museum, one of the outstanding private museums in the world, with a collection of over 2,000 species, is the result of the devotion and dedication of the Patamakanthin family, who spent a period of over forty years, visiting countries all over the world, scouting for the most beautiful and unique shells, and gradually building up the collection. The collection was actually started by Somnuk Patamakanthin, the father, who was born in Damnoen Saduak, Ratchaburi Province, and later migrated to Phuket. As a young boy Somnuk began the collection of seashells to make a living. Seashells found in the waters of Thailand always had a great collectors' value and fetched premium prices. Somnuk's interest in collecting shells eventually acquired a dual purpose, partly commercial and partly as a hobby. His collecting habit instilled in him a love of nature, and a craving to understand his own environment, that led him to dedicate his entire life towards the study of these beautiful creations of nature. His collection grew to enormous proportions, and Somnuk felt that just keeping such an important collection in the confines of his home wound not serve any useful purpose, and would better serve the cause of nature and humanity, by exhibiting them to the general public. Such an exposition would increase awareness among the public of nature's valuable gifts to mankind, and help to instill in him a love and respect for nature and the environment. Besides it would also help mankind to realize and appreciate his own crucial position in the natural environment vis-Ã -vis other living things in nature. Somnuk then established the Phuket Sea Shell Museum, at the same time his son Somwang Patamakanthin aka Jom, was born.
“There were countless shells in the sea but no one in Thailand who managed or collected them for the purpose of trading and education. I have always valued nature and I thought I could make use of shells harmlessly and effectively. As a result I established the shell museum at the same time that my son, Jom, was born,” said Somnuk in an interview given to Sarinthorn Eiamfang
Jom, who grew up under the shadow of his father, inherited his father's passion for collecting shells, that also opened the way for him to make a living and broaden his horizons. He joined his father on his overseas shell-collecting trips, which gave the young Jom an opportunity of not only seeing a variety of shells in their original environment, but also being exposed to a variety of human races and their cultures. Both father and son together have scoured the remotest corners of the world, and built up this valuable collection, that numbers over 2,000 species of shells. Apart from Thailand, some of the countries from where the different shell species had been collected include, Taiwan, Philippines, Japan, France, Germany, England, Canada, USA, Cuba and Morocco. Somwang Patamakanthin is now the Managing Director and Curator of the Museum, and continues to build on the success of his father, collecting more and more shells, and planning to expand the museum and open new branches to help spread the message on nature and its appreciation, initiated by his father.
Some of the aims and objectives of the Phuket Shell Museum as envisaged by its founders the Patamakanthin family are as follows :-
1) Increasing awareness among the public of nature's biodiversity, and the crucial role played by man in the maintenance of such diversity.
2) Instilling a love and respect for nature and the environment.
3) The need for preserving the environment for the sustenance of life on this planet.
4) Helping people understand life through the understanding of shells.
5) To make the museum a focal point for like-minded people who share the same interest, viz. the study of shells.
6) To expand the knowledge and appreciation of shells by creating new museums.
7) To give the younger generation a chance to be inspired by shells, and thereby instill in them a respect for life and nature.
The shell collection of the Phuket Shell Museum have received international acclaim as one of the most extraordinary shell collections in the world. A considerable number of shells in the collection are from the seas around Thailand and the Phuket Island, the Gulf of Thailand, the Andaman Sea and the Malacca Straits. Other shells in the collection are from different countries from different regions of the world, such as Asia, Europe, the Americas, the Caribbean and Africa. While the shells in the collection are mainly from the Phylum Mollusca, representing the classes Gastropoda, Bivalvia, and Cephalopoda, there are also species from the Phylum Echinodermata, such as sea urchin shells. However, majority of the shells, are from the class Gastropoda, and sub-class Prosobranchia, that include conchs, volutes, whelks, cones etc. Some shells from the sub-class Pulmonata (land snails) are also represented.
The colorful sea urchin (Echinodermata) shells in the Museum, come from locations in Canada, Taiwan, the United Kingdom and Phuket itself. The class Cephalopoda of Phylum Mollusca, is represented by both live specimens and shells of the Chambered Nautilus, Nautilus pompilius.
The sub-class, Prosobranchia of the Gastropda are represented by the families Turbinellidae (conch shells and vase shells), Turbinidae (turban and star shells), Trochidae (top shells), Xenophoridae (carrier shells), Pleurotomariidae (slit shells), Angariidae (delphinula shells), Coralliophilidae (latiaxis shells), Volutidae (noble volutes), etc.
The sub-class, Pulmonata, among others is also represented by one of the world's most colorful land-based snails from Cuba, known as the Painted Polymita with a beautiful shell having a colorful design, that includes colors such as black, white, orange and red.
Some Polymita Shells from Cuba- Not part of the museum collection
The Bivalvia, among others is also represented by the impressive Giant Clam shells, the world's largest species of bivalve, with the scientific name Tridacna gigas, found in the shallow coral reefs off the Philippine Islands, particularly off the Island of Palawan, and also in the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, in northeast Australia. Some of the Giant Clams can reach a weight of up to 300 kg and can live for over a hundred years.
Tridacna gigas- Giant Clam Shell - Not part of the museum collection
The collection also includes Fossil shells of extinct Bivalvia, Gastropoda and Cephalopoda. An example of a fossil bivalve is Chlamys acutus from the Miocene period, about 12 million years old, collected from Lacoste near Avignon in France. Campanile giganteum is a large fossil gastropod from the Eocene period, around 35 million years old, collected from from the Paris basin, Damery, France. Among the fossil Cephalopods, there are shells of the most primitive ammonites from the Devonian period, which are over 350 million years old, collected from Morocco, as well as the more recent fossil ammonites from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, between 175 to 65 million years old, collected from Germany, England and France.
Fossil shells that do not belong to fossil Mollusca, but yet included in the collection, are a fossil land turtle shell (Vertebrate Phylum Reptilia), from the Oligocene period, about 30 million years old, collected from South Dakota, USA. Fossil marine Arthropods of the class Trilobita (Trilobite) with a calcite exoskeleton, and belonging to the Early Cambrian period of the lower Palaeozoic Era, 540 million years ago are also a part of the display in the museum.
1) The Golden Melo-Melo Pearl - While most of the shells in the collection are quite rare, such as the Giant Clam shells, the painted Polymita, and the different fossil specimens varying in age from a few million to over 500 million years, there are at least two specimens in the collection that are extremely rare indeed. These are one of the world's largest golden melo-melo pearls weighing 140 carats, and discovered from a bailer volute or the Melo melo sea-snail , brought out from a depth of 40 to 80 meters, by trawlers, off the west coast of Phuket Island. Melo melo pearls are indeed very very rare, the occurrence of a pearl being one in several thousand sea-snails. It is estimated that only around 200 to 300 gem-quality melo-melo pearls exist in the world today, and most of them are in private collections.
2) The world's only left-handed noble-volute shell - Another, extremely rare exhibit in the collection is the world's only left-handed noble-volute shell (Cymbiola nobilis). Gastropods shells can be right-handed or left-handed, depending on whether they are spiraled clockwise or anticlockwise. When a shell is held in a position, such that the apex of the shell is at the top and the aperture facing the person holding the shell, those with aperture facing the right are right-handed(dextral), and those with aperture facing the left, are left-handed (sinistral). Most gastropods have right-handed shells, except in a few species such as land and tree snails that have left-handed shells. But even among them there can be exceptions. In the noble-volute, Cymbiola nobilis, existing in the sub-littoral zone of the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea, down to depths of about 100 meters, the shell is usually right-handed, and several of them are displayed in the museum. However, there is one unique noble-volute shell among them, placed in the center of the display case, which is considered to be the one and only left-handed noble-volute shell ever discovered. The specimen was brought up by trawlers operating in the Gulf of Thailand.
Left-Handed and Right-Handed Shells of Neptunia Species
Pala Gems International in their AGTA booth at the 55th annual Tucson Gem and Mineral Show held in February 2009, exhibited a "rarity of the rarities," a perfect and beautiful, oval or egg-shaped melo-melo pearl of Southeast Asian origin. The pearl had a weight of 75.07 carats, a medium-sized pearl, when compared to the larger melo-melo pearls over 100 carats in weight. The dimensions of the pearl are not known. The perfect oval or egg-shape of the pearl is indeed very stunning, to the extent that it can be characterized as one of most perfect oval-shaped natural pearls in the world. The intense orange color of the pearl, reminiscent of the color of the interior of a ripe pawpaw, is also one of the most desirable and sought-after colors in melo-melo pearls, out of the range of colors in which they can appear, such as light, medium and dark, yellow, orange and brown or a mixture of two of these colors. The pearl has the characteristic porcellaneous luster of non-nacreous pearls, supplemented by the shimmering effect of a strong and unusual "flame structure," caused by the arrangement of microcrystalline calcite fibers in the pearl-forming substance. The combination of desired characteristics such as the perfect oval shape, the medium size, the intense-orange color, the spectacular shimmering effect of its "flame structure" makes this melo-melo pearl, an extremely rare natural pearl, that deserves to be listed under the category of famous pearls of the world. Little wonder then, that Pala Gems International, had placed a price tag of $1,300 per carat for this pearl, which works out to a reasonable total of USD 97,591, a price that reflects the present market value of quality melo-melo pearls, after the initial staggering prices achieved by these rare pearls, following the sale of a near-spherical, fiery, orange melo-melo pearl, for a record USD 488,311 at a Christie's auction in Hong Kong in November 1999.
Orange Egg Shaped Melo Melo Pearl
Â©Pala International. photo by Delphine Leblanc
The source of this rare melo-melo pearl, is either Vietnam or Burma, two of the countries that has significantly increased the production of melo-melo pearls recently, after the extensive trawler fishing in deep waters (50-100 meters) of the bailer volute or Melo melo sea-snail, the gastropod mollusks in which these "fireballs" of nature grow. Vietnam had been the primary source of melo-melo pearls in the world, since ancient times, where the pearl had become a symbol of their religion and culture. Vietnamese, being Buddhists, revered the pearl and the bailer shell, as a sacred object, as in Buddhism the pearl was considered a symbol of perfection, a gemstone that was naturally perfect and beautiful, and did not require human intervention to bring out its beauty as in other gemstones. Melo-Melo pearls became one of the eight precious emblems of Lord Buddha, the enlightened one, the other emblems being the canopy (umbrella), the sacred vase, the royal banner, the wheel of life, a pair of fishes, the endless knot and the lotus flower. The dragon and the melo pearl motif in Chinese and Vietnamese decorative art, symbolized the emperor (represented by the dragon) pursuing the pearl, the symbol of perfection, a goal that all Vietnamese and Chinese emperors strived to achieve. Thus melo-melo pearls were highly valued by the emperor, who accumulated a large collection, by sending his ships to the Halong Bay and the South China Sea to look for these pearls, and the voluntary surrendering of such pearls to the emperor, by his subjects.
The intensive trawler fishing of Melo melo sea-snails in Vietnam, started in the early 1990s, and still continues up to this day, even though large sea-snails are now becoming very scarce, and pearls discovered are becoming still scarcer. It has been observed that larger melo-melo pearls are usually associated with larger sea-snails that have undergone the full course of development, that lasts several decades.
Unlike in Vietnam, in Burma, melo-melo pearls were relatively unknown in the past, with no written literature or historical references to the pearl, even though Burma too was a predominantly Buddhist country, like Vietnam. However, along the Arakan coast, the southern region of Dawei, the Mergui Archipelago, and Kawthaung in the Andaman Sea, there existence had been known for quite some time, the bailer volute shells being known as "Ohn kayu" - coconut shell - and the orange pearls produced by them being referred to as "Ohn pale" - coconut pearls. The Melo melo sea-snails are fished from the muddy sea bottoms using trawlers, known as "Wa-lat" or "Gar" at depths of 30 to 50 meters. Most of the melo-melo pearls are fished from the Mergui archipelago, which are then sold at the town of Mergui, a local trading center for these rare pearls. The pearls that are purchased by the local dealers from the fisherman, eventually find their way to the capital city of Myanmar, Yangon (Rangoon) or to the capital of neighboring Thailand, Bangkok, where they are sold by auction to the highest bidder.
The size, spherical shape, intense-orange color and the spectacular flame structure are all factors that enhance the value of a melo-melo pearl. However, melo-melo pearls with shapes other than spherical and near-spherical, such as button, irregular or baroque shapes, having a subdued flame structure, and a mottled surface with white spots, and colors other than intense-orange are less valuable.
Pala International Inc.was founded four decades ago in 1968, by Bill Larson, a connoisseur of fine gems and minerals, who set up the company known as Pala Properties International, that purchased three gem mines in San Diego county, California. The three mines located in the foothills of northern San Diego County were known as the Stewart Lithia Mine, Tourmaline Queen Mine and the Pala Chief Mine. A gem mining industry based on Tourmaline deposits had been established in San Diego since the 19th-century, and the three mines purchased by Pala Properties International had been part of that industry. The gems mined in this region were purchased by gem houses from America, Europe and Asia. One of the leading jewelry establishments in the United States, Tiffany's was also actively involved in purchasing gemstones from this region, and had appointed part-time buyers who operated from the Pala and Mesa Grande mining districts. The Chinese also had taken a special interest in Tourmaline, using the gemstone in oriental carvings and on mandarin clothing. The San Diego County records show that gemstone production in the early 1900s, had exceeded two million dollars.
Organized mining activities in San Diego did not take place, until the emergence of Pala Properties International in 1968. Initially, the Stewart Lithia Mine produced small quantities of Tourmaline from small pockets of the mineral in the mine. The real breakthrough in mining came in 1972, when a new strike was made at the Tourmaline Queen Mine, that produced high-quality tourmaline crystals. The new strike was characterized as "the find of the century, both in terms of color and perfection." It was during this strike that an exceptional tourmaline piece was discovered, that was named the "candelabra" which is now put on display at the Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals of the National Museum of Natural History, of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington DC.
Pala International opened its first retail shop known as "The Collector" in Falbrook, northern San Diego County in 1971, that showcased the gems and minerals mined by the company, and other objects of art, for the benefit of collectors and dealers in the gem and jewelry trade. Based on the success of this venture, the company opened a second retail shop at the Four Seasons Aviara, in Carlsbad, California. The two shops are the main outlets for the company's exquisitely crafted handmade jewelry, set with a variety of gems mined in three different continents, Africa, Asia and the Americas. Pala has earned an international reputation as a leading gem, mineral and jewelry company, that obtains its gemstones and minerals directly from the source. Pala has its own staff or its agents in the major gem and mineral producing areas in the world, purchasing the highest quality rough gemstones and minerals, as they come out of the mines. Even for purchasing the rare melo-melo pearls, Pala has its own agents based in the producing countries such as Vietnam and Myanmar. Little wonder then that Pala International has earned a reputation as the best source for the world's finest colored stones. This is of course in keeping with the company's slogan, "The only way to sell quality is to buy it." Pala always buys the highest quality gemstones from the source, that are eventually set in their exquisite handcrafted fine jewelry, that are renowned for their highest quality.
A key player in the international gem and jewelry trade, Pala International is a founder member of the International Colored Gemstone Association (ICA), founded in 1983, and the American Gem Trade Association (AGTA), founded in 1981. Besides the Company is a registered dealer of the American Gem Society (AGS), an association of fine jewelers, whose members are committed to the highest standards of business ethics, in order to protect the consumer. Among the company's leading clientele are Tiffany's, Neiman Marcus, Borsheim, The Smithsonian Institution, the American Museum of Natural History and the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.
Bonhams sale 13070, a Natural History Sale was held on January 16, 2005, at its auction house at Sunset Blvd. Los Angeles, California. Among the Gem and Jewelry category of the sale, Lot No. 2390 was an impressive melo-melo pearl, described as the "Dragons Flaming Pearl" discovered from the Melo melo sea-snail off the coast of Vietnam, in the waters of the Halong Bay or the South China Sea.
The auction catalogue described Lot No. 2390 as follows :- Lot 2390 is a highly important, undrillled, non-nacreous, spherical pearl of vivid orange color, with porcelain finish and good luster, exceptional for its large size. Its limited availability makes it one of the world's rarest gems, weighing approximately 57.0 carats and measuring 19.5 mm.
Accompanied by a now out-of-print book of essays regarding the melo-melo pearl edited by Derek Content, entitled the "Pearl and The Dragon": A Study of Vietnamese Pearls and a History of the Oriental Pearl Trade, published by Outset Services Ltd, Boston Spa, England, 1999.
The diameter of the pearl is given as 19.5 mm and the weight as 57.0 carats. The diameter of melo-melo pearls can vary from a few millimeters to around 35 mm, the largest diameter ever recorded being 37.97 mm. Thus among melo-melo pearls, this pearl can be considered as a medium-sized pearl. The shape of the pearl is given as spherical, the most sought-after shape in any category of pearls. Spherical and near-spherical shapes are quite common among melo-melo pearls, given the enormous size of the snail, and its equally enormous visceral mass, consisting of soft tissues that allow the equal growth and expansion of the pearl on all sides. The color of the pearl is described as a vivid orange color. This is perhaps a reference to the much sought-after intense-orange color among melo-melo pearls. The porcelain finish of course refers to a character of non-nacreous pearls, which do not have the luster and iridescence of nacreous pearls, due to the inability of calcite micro-fibrils to scatter white light unlike aragonite micro- platelets. The reference to a good luster in the description is however misleading, because such luster is an exclusive property of nacreous pearls. Non-nacreous pearls like melo-melo pearls only have a "porcellaneous" luster. However, it appears that the reference to "good luster" might perhaps be a reference to the unique "flame structure" of melo-melo pearls, which compensates for the lack of luster as seen in nacreous pearls. The "flame structure" is a spectacular chatoyant effect caused by the arrangement and alignment of bundles of calcite micro-fibrils. The beauty of the shimmering "flame structure" sometimes even surpasses the beauty of nacreous pearls.
The reference to undrilled in the description, obviously means that no attempt had been made to drill the pearl in order to set it in an ornament. Drilling melo-melo pearls do not present any difficulties, as such pearls have a hardness of 5 in the Mohs scale, the highest for any category of pearls. In Vietnam, where the pearl originated, melo-melo pearls were revered as sacred objects in the past and were never drilled. Thus the reference to undrilled may perhaps emphasize the historical provenance of the pearl, similar to the use of the term "highly important" before it. The term "highly important" may refer to its historical provenance, possibly belonging to the collection of a royal personality.
The source of the pearl is given as the saltwaters near Vietnam. Vietnam had been the primary source of melo-melo pearls since very ancient times. These pearls were found in the Halong Bay of Vietnam and the South China Sea. Previously, the bailer volute was found even in the shallow waters of the Halong Bay, but after continuous exploitation mainly as a source of food, the volute is not so common in the shallow waters of the bay, but are now found only in the deeper waters of the bay, as well as the South China Sea up to depths of 50 to 100 meters. Presently, some of the sea-snail rich areas in Vietnam are, the sand banks around the Bach Long Vi Islands, in the Halong Bay, midway between Haipong and Hainan Island, the waters surrounding the Spartly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, and the Phu Quoc Island near the Cambodian border. There had been a significant increase in the production of melo-melo pearls in Vietnam, since the early 1990s, after extensive trawler fishing for the Melo melo sea-snails in deeper water of the Ha Long Bay, and the South China Sea.
The results of the Bonhams Natural History Sale No. 13070, held on January 16, 2005, at Los Angeles, as given in its website, show that Lot. No. 2390 - The Impressive Melo Pearl, The Dragons Flaming Pearl - was sold for USD 18,800, a reasonable price reflecting the current market values of melo-melo pearls, after the initial staggering prices recorded at the Christie's auctions held in November 1999 and April 2000. The falling prices of the pearls were attributed to increased availability of the pearls, due to pearls from collections being released to the markets, in order to benefit from the surge in prices.
You are welcome to discuss this post/related topics with Dr Shihaan and other experts from around the world in our FORUMS (forums.internetstones.com)
1) The Secret of Shells - Interview of Somnuk Patamakanthin and Somwang Patamakanthin of the Phuket Sea Shell Museum, by Sarinthorn Eiamfang. www.daydreamerbear.multiply.com
2) Phuket Seashell Museum - www.bangkoksite.com
3) Phuket Seashell Museum - www.phuket-tourism.com
4) Gastropoda - www.manandmollusc.net
5) Tucson Show 2009 - Delphine Leblanc - Gem Features - International Colored Gemstone Association. www.gemstone.org
6) Lot 2390 : An Impressive Melo Pearl - The Dragons Flaming Pearl. www.artfact.com
7) Melo Pearls from Myanmar - Han Htun, Bill Larson, Jo Ellen Cole - www.palagems.com
8) About Pala - www.palagems.com
Dr Shihaan Larif
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