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Flame On, You Crazy Pearl

Inspiration in a rare visual phenomenon

Anyone who’s followed my work knows I love pearls. Their juicy shapes, their light-reflective luster- these characteristics fire my ideas. I love to use pearls in modern designs that allow their glowing organic shapes to tell their own story.

Most pearls are grown in bivalve mollusks like oysters or mussels. A pearl is the result of the creature’s effort to soothe itself from an irritant- sort of a “princess and the pea” thing. The process begins when a bit of sand or grit gets caught inside the mollusk’s shell. The soft-bodied sea creature covers it with successive layers of material, called “nacre,” to round out the itchy edges in an effort to reduce the irritation. Over time, the layers of nacre harden into what we value as a pearl.

This process occurs naturally in the wild, but we humans- in love with shiny objects such as we are- have developed ways to grow pearls deliberately through our intervention. Pearl farmers raise large beds of pearl-producing mollusks, seeding them with small round stones or other shapes to jump-start the natural pearl production process. This is the foundation of what we refer to as “cultured pearls,” which many of us wear today.

Recently I discovered another pearl variety that grows only in nature, the Melo Melo Pearl.

These pearls, which start out essentially the same way as other pearls, grow only in the Melo Melo snail, a spiral-shelled mollusk found in the South China Sea.

The Melo, a large-ish predator snail, has never been farm-raised successfully. Its pearl-growth process is somewhat different from most bivalve-grown pearls, however, and the results of this difference are extraordinary.

Unlike the bivalves, the Melo secretes a combination of two minerals, calcite and aragonite, to relieve its irritation. The Melo pearl has a surface akin, structurally, to porcelain and often appears in colors such as yellow or orange. The Melo pearl surface is called porcelaneous, rather than nacreous, like our traditional pearls.

Calcite and aragonite have different crystalline structures, which causes them to reflect light in different ways as well as prevents them from “blending” into one another in the places where they touch. As they slide over the irritant in the snail, they sort of “feather” into each other, creating a pattern of finger-like lines where each finger retains its distinct light dispersion properties. The resulting pattern, referred to as “flame,” is a visual masterpiece, and makes this kind of pearl especially unique and valuable.

Another genus of bivalve, Spondylus, also produces porcelaneous pearls comprised of the same minerals, also occasionally resulting in the same gorgeous flame phenomenon.

The Spondylus, known informally as the spiny oyster, served as one of humankind’s first forms of currency, and has been of interest to me as a designer for quite a while. The rough, jutting spines of these bivalve shells may not make for the most comfortable jewelry, but they serve as powerful inspiration to me as I strive to pull organic shapes from my metal.

The “flame” phenomenon is exactly what inspired my Spondylus Collection, a group of silver and gold earrings, necklaces, bracelets and rings featuring organic hammered disks simulating the “drip” so characteristic of the tips of flame found on the surface of some of the most spectacular pearls on earth.

Thanks for reading. -xo

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