FAU Conch Pearls
FAU Conch Pearls
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The queen conch could prove to be a real jewel for Florida Atlantic University.
The plan: to use the marine animal to produce cultured pearls, and potentially make a lot of money with both sales and a patent on its newly developed technique.
The university's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute inPort St. Luciehas already produced 200 pearls during a test run in 2009 and received a $65,000 state grant in 2010 to accelerate the project.
The pearls have a porcelain finish and luster like the interior of the conch shell, and come in a wide variety of colors including white, red, pink, orange, yellow and brown. They are measured in carats like traditional gemstones.
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"They're very striking in nature and very much a conversation piece," said Amanda Gizzi, a spokeswoman for Jewelers of America, a trade association.
Conch pearls are already on the market in their natural form. But they are extremely rare and expensive. Experts estimate only one in 10,000 conchs produces a pearl, and fewer than 10 percent of those are large enough and of high enough quality to be used for a gem.
The prices for natural pearls range from $200 to $2,000 a karat; the culturing process could cut the price in half, officials said.
Right now, FAU scientists are getting their tanks and conchs prepared. They plan to start seeding a large batch of conchs this summer for their first big harvest in the summer 2013. Jewelry could be on the market by late 2013, said scientist Megan Davis, co-inventor of FAU's patent pending technique.
FAU and its business partner, Vero Beach-based Rose Pearl LLC, are also experimenting with ways to direct the color and shaping of the pearls to make it easier to create matching jewelry sets.
The university could cash in on royalties, and the state could get an economic boost as well, officials say.
"Everyone's always looking for a new gem," Davis said. "It's a unique product that Florida will be known for, and I think it has a lot of value economically."
Still, conch pearl jewelry is a niche industry, and demand is stronger in Asia and Europe than the United States, said Daven Sethi, vice president of New York-based wholesaler Tara Pearls.
"I am not sure if we'd be interested," he said. "It would depend on market demand."
Most efforts to culture conch pearls have been unsuccessful in the past, due to the animal's sensitivity to traditional seeding techniques, which involve injecting an irritant into the mantle area. And the shell's spiral shape makes it difficult to reach the gonad, one of the pearl-forming portions of a conch, without endangering the animal's life, FAU officials said.
While oysters are sacrificed when they are cultured for pearls, queen conchs are a protected species in Florida. Found mostly in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, their numbers have been rapidly declining due to over-fishing and poaching, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"We will make sure the consumer understands the process is sustainable. We don't kill the animals in any of the process," Davis said.