Clam Pearls


Clam pearls sound like failure. Admit it. Suppose you enjoy beer. I have two words for you, listen carefully: barley frosting. It’s reaching. Clams are a homely, industrious animal. They require no glamour. Clam pearls?

Perhaps clam pearls are a form of currency among strange peoples, like the Genetians. As the world’s sole source of Gentian root, key to Moxie, their inland redoubt with its famous Navy, perhaps in Geneva the savages trade what must be slate grey misfortunes. Yet there are clam pearls and I have seen them. They are pearls and clam pearls can be just as pretty as the ones worn by Lisa Simpson. Or Audrey Hepburn.

In theory, any bivalve can produce a pearl, and the mechanism by which pearls are produced is easy to understand. A grain of sand or other foreign body becomes embedded in the clam’s flesh, so the animal encysts the invader to wall off any further damage to the body from it, using such proteins to coat the thing as are available to the animal’s metabolic system. In humans, particles of asbestos, which the body cannot excrete from the lungs are also encysted by the body using human proteins. These cysts sometimes result in metastatic disease. Fortunately clams don’t live anywhere near long enough to have to worry about cancer. Pearls are a great deal more common in oysters and even mussels than in clams, nonetheless from time-to-time someone eating littlenecks discovers what to all intents and purposes is a pearl. First question: are they worth anything?

Because they are natural in origin, this suggests a potential market value. On January 8 2008, a couple in Florida found an extremely rare purple pearl inside their clam dinner. These are unusual and can fetch up to $25,000 on the gem market if without flaw. More often, a purple pearl from a clam is worth $1000 - $1500. In general, pearls from mussels and oysters are worth the most. This is because the qualities we most value in pearls, luster and color, derive from a specific protein called nacre. Clams secrete less of this protein than mussels and oysters do.

The largest known pearl in the world, known as both the Pearl of Allah and the Pearl of Lao-Tzu, weighs 14.1 pounds and is a clam pearl, non-nacreous. Its value has been variously appraised at $60M and $93M, but is tied up in Probate and not available for sale. At present the gem is owned in three equal shares by the heirs of Victor Barbish, Peter Hoffman and Joe Bonicelli, and not on public display.

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