Oyster pearls have been prized for millennia for their lustrous, nacreous surface and beauty, but there is another type that has captivated jewelry designers since the Victorian era: the conch “pearl”. They are commonly called “the pink pearl” and are exceedingly rare; only one in approximately 10,000 conches produce a “pearl” and only about 10% of those are gem-quality. Conch “pearls” are created naturally by the Queen conch (Strombas gigas), a creature that is found mostly in the Caribbean Ocean and recognizable thanks to its spiral-shaped shell. The “pearls” are calcareous concretions of this large sea snail and have the same pearl structure and chemical composition as nacreous pearls. However, they are non-nacreous like the Melo Melo pearl and have what is referred to as a porcelain-like surface.
Most conch “pearls” have an elongated or baroque shape, although round and near-round examples have been found. They are prized for their delicate pink and peachy hues, but also come in white, yellow, and brown. Bubble-gum pink continues to be the most popular, and the most sought-after examples have a chatoyant flame structure that is visible to the naked eye and resembles watered silk. This structure is produced by concentric layers of fibrous calcium and, along with color, symmetry, and size, determines the gem’s value and collectability. Unlike oyster pearls, the size of a conch “pearl” is calculated in carat weight, not millimeters. Colloquially known as the night gem, prolonged exposure to UV light can fade conch "pearls," but indoor lighting does not seem to have the same effect. These organic gems are not treated in any way and care should be taken when wearing them.
Originally, conch shells were used in the Victorian era when many were exported to Europe to use in porcelain manufacture, cameo carving, and other decorative items. The Art Nouveau period saw these beautiful “pearls” incorporated into jewelry that expressed a love for naturalistic motifs. Their popularity then waned and all but disappeared, until the late 1970s and early 1908s when professional diver, Sue Hendrickson, began buying them from fishermen in the Caribbean who were preparing shells for sale. She amassed a collection of high-quality conch “pearls” and reintroduced them to the jewelry design market. Design houses such as Mikimoto, Tiffany & Co., Marcus & Co., Arthur King, and Hemmerle have all used these beautiful gems in their jewelry designs.
Arthur King had an amazing shop on 59th Street—with it's rough-hewn slate, fish-filled aquariums...and craggy quartzes all around...with small lozenge-shaped showcases suddenly appearing where you least expect them to be.
Graham Hughes, Jewelry
When searching Arthur King in today’s technological world, you are first served with King Arthur and that is not all that bad, for Arthur King is in fact a legendary jeweler. He taught himself the craft, while serving in the U.S. Merchant Marines during WWII. By the 1970s, his freeform gold designs using the lost wax process were instantly recognizable and sought throughout the world by jewelry connoisseurs. The distinctive settings held equally distinctive gems, out of the ordinary, and often completely natural in form, rather than cut. Think of baroque pearls, emerald crystals, coral, turquoise, geodes, and amber.
The Arthur King boutique in New York City captivated an exclusive clientele, including Clare Booth Luce, Barbara Hutton and Mary Hemingway. Created as an Aladdin’s cave, dark and fit with natural wood and unique objects, the space was a wunderkammer, a cabinet of curiosities. It lured in visitors with confidence seeking a new look and King's sculpted gold met that desire. Today, Arthur King jewelry seldom comes to auction and continues to be sought and collected by international collectors. His vivacious personality lives on as legend.