Very Fine Non-Nacreous Orange Pearl, Melo melo,  Saltwaters near Vietnam

Very Fine Non-Nacreous Orange Pearl, Melo melo,  Saltwaters near VietnamEstimate: US$ 40,000 – 50,000 (€36,000 – 45,000). Photo: Bonhams.

Relatively unknown in the West, even George Kunz’s compendium of 1908, The Book of The Pearl, had no references to the rare orange pearl offered here. So few have been found, it is no wonder. The Melo melo is the marine snail that produces orange pearls the color of a ripe papaya. The snail generates a pearl-like substance to enclose foreign bodies, or irritants, entering its shell. Both orange and pink pearls (from the conch, Strombus gigas) are « non-nacreous », meaning they do not have a layer of calcium carbonate on their outer surface as white pearls do. Instead, they display a fiery, porcelain-like surface, giving them a unique beauty not possessed by other varieties of pearls. A relative of the conch, the Melo melo is also a gastropod. It is found in the waters of picturesque Halong Bay (meaning Bay of Dragons), along the northern coast of Vietnam.

Several thousand Melo volutes would have to be harvested for a single pearl to be found, particularly a fine quality pearl of any significant size. As the Melo volute is found in such deep waters almost 15 hours from the shoreline, although edible, it was not typically fished for food.

The Vietnamese Emperors valued the pearl highly and sent ships to search for the Melo shell. In the Pacific, the shell is regarded a sacred object by Buddhists, appearing in much religious imagery. The pearl was an expression of perfection in Buddhist thought as it requires no enhancement or alteration by man when it emerges from its shell, unlike gemstones which require faceting by man to reveal their beauty. The Chinese, Japanese and the Vietnamese all believed that pearls were created in heaven from droplets that fell from the Dragon in the sky. These droplets descended from heaven into open shells in the water. Moonbeams nourished the dragon droplets and these grew into pearls. It is no wonder that the Melo pearl has held a fascination in the East for centuries (Zucker, 1999).

The pearl was one of the eight precious emblems of the Buddha. As a sacred object, these pearls were never drilled or strung as beads. Instead they were used as objects of devotion. The « fiery pearl »— a pearl with a flaming tail and the Dragon are both ubiquitous in Vietnamese decorative arts, found in ceramics, textiles and painting. The Dragon, symbolizing the Emperor, is seen pursuing the pearl. The Emperors surrounded themselves with dragon and « flaming pearl » motifs in their art and even on their Imperial robes. One can now surmise that this was not just a metaphor but an illustration of the wonderful flame-like structure within the porcelain surface of the Melo pearl.

Large in size for the species, the vivid cantaloupe color of this pearl is only one of its outstanding features: it is also exceptional for its symmetrical spherical shape. The flame pattern iridescence which lies beneath the top quality porcellaneous surface is superb. Weighing approximately 20.52 carats and measuring 13.5 mm