Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Friday, March 21, 2003

Giant pearl surrounded
by ocean of legend

Oscar Bayna writes, "I was born in the little town of Brooke's Point, Palawan, Philippines, where the Pearl of Allah was found. Ever since I came to know about it in high school, I became fascinated, to a point of obsession, of one day seeing it.

"I've been searching for more information but found little. If you know where I can find more information, please help."

Oscar asks because in my recent column about pearls, I mentioned the Pearl of Allah, the largest pearl in the world. This pearl weighs 14 pounds and is about 9 inches across and 5 inches wide.

My information for that column came from a book I bought at Chicago's Field Museum, which is currently having an exhibit on pearls. The book, "Pearls: A Natural History," published by the Field Museum and the American Museum of Natural History, is one of the jewels (sorry) of my marine library.

I used the book and the Internet to learn more about this giant pearl. Its story is worth sharing.

A free-diving diver named Etem found the pearl inside a giant clam off Palawan Island, Philippines, in 1934. To this Muslim diver, the pearl's surface bore the image of a turbaned face, and he named it the Pearl of Allah.

The chief of Palawan took possession of the pearl. Around 1939 a man named Wilburn Dowell Cobb saved the life of the chief's son and received the pearl in gratitude. Cobb's heirs sold it in 1980 to Peter Hofman, a jeweler from Beverly Hills, for $200,000.

In 1966 the pearl was valued at $3.5 million. According to a recent Guinness Book of Records, the San Francisco Gem Laboratory values it at $40 million to $42 million.

Replicas of the pearl are on display at various museums around the world, but the real pearl's location is known only to the owner. One source says that the pearl is (or was) co-owned by Peter Hofman and Victor Barbish. In 1999 the owners reportedly either sold it, or negotiated to sell it, to a museum for $25 million.

Another name for this giant pearl is the Pearl of Lao Tsu. Lao Tsu, meaning Old Sage, is the legendary sixth-century B.C. philosopher known as the father of Taoism.

I wondered how the pearl got this name and found several possible explanations. One is spiritual. Lao Tsu, a contemporary of Confucius, has been called a master alchemist who transmuted the pearl of suffering into the pearl of peace.

Here's a more fanciful story: The Taoist Lao Tsu had a diver place a charm inside the clam to grow a beautiful pearl. The pearl grew for years until the clam disappeared in a terrible storm. The clam wound up in the Philippines, where the pearl was discovered in 1934.

Given the poetic names of this pearl, and its extraordinary value, you might think it's the most beautiful gem in the world. It isn't.

The thing looks like a lumpy, misshapen brain. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some claim to see in this pearl the image of Buddha.

If anyone knows more about this giant gem, please share. Oscar and I would both like to know.

Marine science writer Susan Scott can be reached at

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