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The Bao Dai Sunrise Pearl. Photo courtesy Mr Ray Chen

Diameter: 37.97 ~ 37.58 mm - Weight: 397.52 cts.- Color: Orange - Surface: Smooth - Sphericity: Loose, near round - Cultivation: Hundreds of Years - Shininess: Brilliant - Character: Of the non-nacreous variety - Certificate: AIGS on December 26, 1996 Given by Dr. Ken Scarrett.

The Bao Dai/Sunrise Pearl that has achieved international fame as the world's largest and roundest melo-melo pearl, is believed to have been part of the collection of Bao Dai, the last emperor of Vietnam, who like his predecessors was an ardent admirer and collector of melo-melo pearls, in keeping with age old tradition of reverence for these natural "fireballs" of nature, believed to be a symbol of perfection in Buddhist thought and was considered as one of the eight precious emblems of the Buddha, and as such became an object of veneration by Buddhists. Melo Melo pearls eventually became a symbol of sovereignty, and was highly valued by emperors who sent their ships in search of these rare beauties, in the waters of the Halong Bay and the South China Sea. Being  sacred objects  melo-melo pearls were never drilled or strung as beads, but preserved and treated with respect, as objects of devotion. Thus the pearl gets its name from the name of the emperor to whose sacred collection it is believed to have belonged.

The name "Sunrise Pearl" was given to the pearl, by its new owner, after it changed hands in the late 1990s. It is not difficult to comprehend why the pearl was named "Sunrise Pearl" given the fiery intense orange or reddish-orange color of the pearl, reminiscent of the colors of the rising (or setting) sun, the pearl itself resembling the ball of fire, popping up above the horizon at sunrise, or about to disappear below the horizon at the time of sunset in the evening. The pearl with a diameter of 37.97 x 37.58 mm and a weight of 397.52 carats has gone down on record as the largest and roundest melo-melo pearl in the world.

Can the Bao Dai/Sunrise Pearl be considered as a perfectly round or spherical pearl ?

The Bao Dai/Sunrise Pearl considered as the largest and roundest pearl in the world, has been compared in size to a ping-pong ball or a golf ball. The longest and shortest diameter of the pearl are 37.97 mm and 37.58 mm respectively. Using these two diameters we can calculate whether the pearl qualifies to be characterized as a perfectly round or spherical pearl. The definition of a perfectly round pearl is a pearl having the same diameter all round when measured with a vernier calipers or has a variation in diameter of less than 2% between its shortest and longest diameters.

The world's largest melo-melo pearl is the Bao Dai/Sunrise Pearl (1,590 grains). It is not only the largest but also the roundest melo-melo pearl in the world. Besides this, the Bao Dai/Sunrise Pearl also acquires the rare distinction as the largest and most perfectly round or spherical pearl out of all non-nacreous and nacreous pearls in the world.

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The Bao Dai Sunrise Pearl- The world's largest and roundest Melo Melo Pearl. Photo courtesy Mr Ray Chen

The Color of the Pearl

The color of the pearl is an intense orange or reddish-orange, one of the most sought-after colors in melo-melo pearls. Three of the most basic colors in melo-melo pearls are yellow, orange and brown.  In practice we come across different shades of these three colors, or a mixture of two of these colors. Light, medium and dark orange and light. medium and dark yellowish-orange are the most sought after colors. The pigments or biochromes associated with these colors are secreted by special secretory cells in the mantle of the Melo melo sea-snail and incorporated into the conchiolin layers of the non-nacreous pearl. The body color of melo-melo pearls, like that of the external shell of the snail, is caused by true pigments or biochromes. Some pigments that cause colors in shells and their pearls are black melanins, green porphyrins, orange carotenoids, and blue and red indigoids. Thus the orange color of melo-melo pearls may perhaps be associated with orange caroteoids. The pigments that impart color to melo-melo pearls, however are not stable, and are slowly altered by ultra-violet light, the color fading gradually after prolonged exposure.

The Luster of the Pearl

The pearl is a non-nacreous pearl, in which the pearl-forming substance is made up of calcite and conchiolin. Calcite micro-crystals are needle-like and form bundles of fibers. The calcite fibers cannot scatter light like hexagonal aragonite platelets, and therefore cannot cause iridescence. Thus, the pearl forming substance in non-nacreous pearls, lack the iridescence and luster of nacreous pearls. Yet, the calcite containing pearl-forming substance has a luster of its own, like the luster of porcelain, known as a porcellaneous luster.

The "Flame Structure" of the Pearl

The arrangement and alignment of  bundles of micro-crystalline fibers, causes a type of chatoyancy, known as "flame structure," which is a unique flame-like shimmering effect on the surface of the pearl. This is an optical effect caused by the interaction of light rays with the micro-crystalline fibers on the surface of the pearl. Sometimes, the chatoyancy produces a mottling effect on the surface of the pearl, commonly seen in yellow melo-melo pearls. The "flame structure" more than compensates for the lack of luster and iridescence of these pearls, and sometimes even surpasses the beauty of nacreous pearls.

The source of the pearl

The source of the pearl is the Melo melo sea-snail, that was once found in abundance in the Ha Long Bay known as the "Bay of Dragons," in the northeastern coast of Vietnam. Previously, the sea-snails were found even in the shallow waters of the bay, but today they are found only in deeper waters at depths of 20-30 meters, sometimes extending to depths of over 50-70 meters in the South China Sea. Some of the snail-rich areas in Vietnam today, are the area around the Bach Long Vi Islands in the Ha Long Bay, the Spartly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, and the Phu Quoc Island near the Cambodian border. Melo melo sea-snail are mainly found in the sandy and muddy bottoms of the algae-rich infra-littoral sub-zone and the animal-dominated circa-littoral sub-zone of the sub-littoral zone.

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The Empereur Bao Dai.

The historic circumstances under which the last emperor of Vietnam came to own a collection of melo-melo pearls

The melo-melo pearls and the sea-snail known as the bailer-volute had been known and appreciated by the people of Southeast Asia, since very ancient times. The large, round, intense-orange, fiery pearls of the sea-snails had captured the imagination of the people of these ancient civilizations, who were amazed by the beauty and perfection of these marvels of nature, that they associated supernatural beliefs with these pearls, which were believed to have originated from drops of water falling on the ocean, from the dragons in the heavens, that entered the snails and grew into pearls, nourished by the moonlight. Thus, the dragon and the flaming melo-melo pearl became a common motif of the decorative arts of the Chinese and Vietnamese, used in paintings, textiles and ceramics. The dragon symbolized the emperor, who was pursuing the pearl, the symbol of perfection in Buddhist thought, the goal of every emperor. The naturally beautiful melo-melo pearls, that did not require man's intervention to bring out its beauty like other gemstones, became a symbol of perfection in Buddhist thought, and one of the eight sacred emblems of the Buddha. Thus the shell of the bailer volute and the fiery pearl became objects of veneration by Buddhists. The pearls were not drilled or strung as beads due to the sanctity associated with them, and were preserved as objects of devotion. The emperors of Vietnam attached a special significance to these pearls, which became not only objects of veneration, but symbols of sovereignty. They valued the pearls so highly, that they sent their ships and sailors in search of these pearls in the Ha Long Bay and the South China Sea. These were the historic circumstances under which the last emperor of Vietnam came to own a sacred collection of melo-melo pearls, some inherited and some acquired during his period of rule, out of which, the Bao Dai/Sunrise Pearl is the largest and most perfect melo-melo pearl.

How Bao Dai's collection of melo-melo pearls came into the limelight ? A collection of 23 deep-orange melo-melo pearls appear in New York in 1993.

Melo-Melo pearls well-known and appreciated in Southeast Asia since ancient times, was unknown in the West until recently. In fact the most authoritative compendium on pearls written by George Frederick Kunz and published in 1909, has no reference at all to these rare natural beauties of Southeast Asia, originating from a large gastropod sea-snail known as the Melo melo sea-snail. These natural pearls of the orient, of extraordinary size, much-desired spherical shape, and a glowing and shimmering orange color, was thrust into the spotlight in the west in 1993, when a collection of 23 deep-orange melo-melo pearls suddenly made their appearance, at a jewelers shop in New York, owned by the gem-dealer and writer Benjamin Zucker. The pearls were brought in by a Swiss dealer for assessment and evaluation by Zucker, and were left with him for further intensive studies. Zucker got in touch with gemologist Kenneth Scarratt of GIA, an authority on pearls and author of the book "Pearl and the Dragon" who identified the unknown pearls immediately as melo-melo pearls of Vietnamese origin.

Benjamin Zucker's exploratory trip to Vietnam and subsequent publication of an article on melo-melo pearls in the July 1997 issue of the Smithsonian Magazine. The photographs of melo-melo pearls that accompanied this publication are believed to be from Bao Dai's collection

His interest kindled, Zucker put together a small team of gemologists, scholars and writers, to visit Vietnam on an exploratory trip, to document all available facts about these pearls, such as identifying the mollusk in which it is produced, the habitat and distribution of the mollusk in the Vietnamese waters, the history of usage and appreciation of these pearls in Vietnam and identifying and interviewing dealers, who deal with these rare pearls in Vietnam. The historic visit of Zucker's team to Vietnam, became the inspiration for an article on melo-melo pearls, published in the July 1997 issue of the reputed Smithsonian Magazine, that provided the crucial publicity required for the popularization of these pearls. The photographs of melo-melo pearls that accompanied this publication, was widely believed to be from the Bao Dai's collection of melo-melo pearls. It is then not far-fetched to assume that these photographs actually represented melo-melo pearls from the collection of 23 deep-orange melo-melo pearls brought in by the Swiss dealer, which necessarily means, what the Swiss dealer brought for Zucker's assessment and evaluation was none other than the Bao Dai's collection of pearls. It is also possible that some of the photographs that appeared in this publication, were taken during Zucker's exploratory visit to Vietnam.

The fact that the collection of melo-melo pearls were entrusted to a Swiss dealer for sale, adds credence to this story, as Switzerland is not far away from Paris, where Emperor Bao Dai lived in exile. Moreover, the fact that the collection first made its appearance in 1993, four years before the death of the ex-monarch, raises the possibility that the exploratory contacts made for the evaluation and possible sale of the pearls, were done perhaps to overcome some financial constraints. Whatever may be the provenance of these 23 melo-melo pearls, the fate of this collection after it made its appearance in Zucker's office in New York, is not known exactly.

A melo-melo pearl sets a record price of USD 488,311 at a Christie's auction in Hong Kong in November 1999

In November 1999, two years after the publication of the Smithsonian article, melo-melo pearls were once again brought into the limelight, when a near-spherical fiery-orange melo-melo pearl, with long and short diameters of 23.0 and 19.35 mm respectively, fetched an unprecedented record price for a single pearl, USD 488,311, 16 times more than the upper pre-sale estimate of USD 30,000, at a Christie's auction held in Hong Kong. This unexpectedly strong showing of the pearl at the auction was attributed to Zucker's work on the pearl and the subsequent Smithsonian article published in 1997, where photographs of the Bao Dai's collection appeared. Soon after this record-breaking auction in 1999, melo-melo pearls appeared from nowhere in the pearl markets, apparently belonging to collectors trying to cash-in on this unexpected popularity, and prices of pearls dropped to the tens of thousands of dollars, in keeping with the increase in supply.

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The round melo pearl weighing approximately 91.29 carats, of orange hue, undrilled. Price Realized HK$967,500/$124,932. Christie"s Magnificent Jewellery & Jadeite Jewellery, 28 November 2007, Hong Kong. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd., 2007

How the present anonymous owner of the Bao Dai/Sunrise Pearl, the largest pearl in the Bao Dai's Collection, acquire the pearl between 1993 and 1996 ?

The 397.52-carat Bao Dai/Sunrise Pearl with dimensions of 37.97 x 37.58 mm is believed to be the largest melo-melo pearl in Bao Dai's collection. This obviously means that the present anonymous owner of the pearl, purchased it either from the Swiss dealer or another dealer authorized by the ex-monarch or his heirs to dispose of the pearl. However, according to Mr. Ray Chen, the Melo Pearl Agent based in Taichung, Taiwan, who has been assigned the task of selling the World's No.1, natural melo pearl, by its anonymous owner, the pearl was purchased by its current owner over 10 years ago, from a Vietnamese, who looked like some disappointed noble. He does not specify, however, where the transaction took place, whether it was in Vietnam, Paris or Switzerland! The year of transaction can be estimated from the known facts. The year the Bao Dai's Collection first appeared in New York was in 1993, and the date appearing on the AIGS certificate issued in respect of the pearl, signed by Dr. Kenneth Scarrett, is December 26, 1996. Assuming that the certificate was issued just prior to the transaction,  in which the present owner acquired the pearl, the transaction obviously would have taken place either in 1996 or 1997. If however, the certificate was issued on the request of the current owner of the pearl in anticipation of disposing the pearl, after he had purchased it earlier without a certificate, the transaction would have taken place somewhere between 1993 and 1996.

Is the Bao Dai/Sunrise  melo-melo pearl one of two almost similar melo-melo pearls that arose in the same Melo melo sea-snail ?

According to Mr. Ray Chen, the Vietnamese seller of the pearl had told the current owner at the time of purchase, that the Bao Dai/Sunrise Pearl was one of almost similar twin pearls, that originated from the same Melo melo sea-snail. While one of the twins had a diameter of approximately 38 mm, the other twin pearl had a diameter of 32.0 mm. Thus according to this story, the World's first and second largest melo-melo pearls having diameters of approximately 38 and 32 mm respectively, originated in one and the same Melo melo sea-snail. This information was provided in the Smithsonian Magazine article. Christie's auction house had attempted to sell the second largest Melo melo pearl at one of their auctions in Hong Kong, around the year 2000. The results of that auction are not known, but the second largest and roundest melo-melo pearl appeared at a Jewelry Show held in Thailand in September 2006. The occurrence of more than one pearl in the same gastropod mollusk is quite possible, given the enormous size of the melo-melo sea-snail, and the well-documented instances of multiple pearls occurring in the same bivalve mollusks such as oysters like Pinctada radiata, that produce seed pearls.

The Bao Dai/Sunrise Pearl known as the "Mysterious Pearl" can also be characterized as the "Rarest of the Rare Pearls."

Given the rarity of these pearls it is believed that only several  hundreds  of these pearls exist today including the pearls discovered in ancient times. According to a CNN iReport given by Ray Chen, the agent for selling the Bao Dai/Sunrise Pearl there may be only around 200 to 300 pieces of gem-quality melo-melo pearls in the world. This estimate may not be far from the truth given the extreme rarity of these pearls. Among these extremely rare pearls, the Bao Dai/Sunrise Pearl occupies a unique position, and may be characterized as a "rarest of the rare pearls." The intense-orange color, the perfectly spherical shape, the large diameter and weight of the pearl, has made the Bao Dai/Sunrise Pearl the "largest, roundest and most perfect natural melo-melo pearl in the world." It is also the "roundest of the world's biggest pearls," and the "largest of the world's round or spherical pearls." Taking into consideration the rare distinctions the Bao Dai/Sunrise Pearl has earned, we can truly say that the pearl is indeed extremely rare. This was undoubtedly the reason that led the National Museum of Natural History to call this pearl the "mysterious pearl."

A melo-melo pearl like the Bao Dai/Sunrise Pearl may take several decades for its development

An observation that has been made in melo-melo pearls, is that the largest pearls are always found in the largest sea-snails. This is obvious, because the largest sea-snails are fully grown, and any pearls that developed inside are also fully developed and have the largest size.  In keeping with a lifespan of around 50 years for the Melo melo sea-snail, some of the larger pearls discovered from these snails, including the Bao Dai/Sunrise Pearl may have been around 40-45 years old at the time they were discovered, assuming that the lodging of irritant that started pearl formation took place after the sea-snail had attained maturity around 5 years of age.

Mr Ray Chen's attempts to sell the Bao Dai/Sunrise Pearl

Attempts made by Mr. Ray Chen of Taiwan, the representative assigned by the anonymous owner of the Bao Dai/Sunrise Pearl, to sell it on his behalf, has not yet been successful. According to Mr. Chen, the former Yugoslavian Prince, Dmitri Karageorge, had offered USD 5 million for the pearl, at the Taiwan Sotheby's about 5 years ago, suggesting that he should not sell it by public auction. After the prince got back to USA from Taiwan, he offered about USD 7 million for the pearl, and yet the owner of the pearl did not accept the offer. Mr. Ray Chen and the owner of the pearl, are yet waiting for better offers than this.  (source www.internetstones.com)