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Pearls and the Biggest Ever

Though most people think pearls only come from "pearl oysters," they are produced by many mollusks (shellfish). Both univalves (snails, whelks and conchs) and bivalves (mussels, clams, oysters), both in fresh water and salt, form pearls.

The largest pearl known was found by an anonymous Muslim Filipino diver
off the island of Palawan in 1934. It was first called the Pearl of Allah
and is now officially named the Pearl of Lao-tze.

Filipinos (that's their flag) are proud of producing the largest pearl. A drawing from Bong Barrameda's Inquirer Trivia in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

In 1936 Wilbur Dowell Cobb was given the pearl as a gift by a chieftain of Palawan for having saved the life of his son. In 1980, Cobb's heirs sold it to a jeweler in Beverly Hills, California, for $200,000. It is now estimated to be worth upwards of $40,000,000!

It has recently (1999) been sold or at least negotiated for.

Is it the really biggest pearl? At 14 pounds (6.4 kg) there is little doubt. The giant clam, Tridacna gigas, is the only mollusk that could have produced such a large pearl.
Its shell is so large that it is often used as an oversized baptismal font in the South Seas, particularly in the Philippines, the only Catholic state in Asia (though with large Muslim, Chinese and tribal minorities).

In the 1750s Alexander Dalrymple described these big shells and their pearls.
Dalrymple worked for the British East India Company and in 1758 concluded a peace treaty with the Sultan of Sulu, an archipelago at the southern end of the Philippines.
His account reads in part:

    Manangcy, or keema --- called humba by the Chinese --- is a shell-fish generally denominated "cockles" by our voyagers. ... It is said that on the west coast of Sumatra [Indonesia] they have been found so large as to contain 50 gallons in the two shells. I brought to England a pair fished at Balambangan [in the Philippines], each measuring 2 feet, 8 inches [ca.77 m]. ... The large ones, in general, yield pearls of various appearances: the most beautiful I have ever seen is Lord Pigot's, which weighs 8 dwt. 17 gr. and is 49/50 of an inch long and 38/50 of an inch in diameter.

Odd choice of measurements. Who measures things in fiftieths of an inch? The weight system he used is called "pennyweight," part of the Troy measuring system, still in use for gold and silver. Lord Pigot's pearl weighed 13.5 grams or just under a half an ounce.
The Pearl of Allah or Lao-tze is much larger.

For information on heirloom beads in the Philippines order:
Heirlooms of the Hills: Southeast Asia


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