Natural pearls have been prized for their beauty and rarity for over four millennia.

Oriental Pearls (also called Bahraini or Genuine Pearls), are the world’s most precious gem and continue to break world record prices in both the Middle-east and in the west.

Natural gulf pearls are among the finest in the world and are still found today in the many countries that surround the gulf such as the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman. 

Natural Pearls are extremely rare. Only one in 10,000 oysters will produce a Natural Pearl and of those only one in a million will be gem quality. Only about half of 1 percent of the world’s pearls are natural.

But rarity is only one of the factors which go into the pricing of a natural pearl. In 2006, a Filipino fishermen found a 26-inch long, 12-inch, nearly 75 pound pearl off Palawan which has been valued at $100 million. It easily beat the erstwhile “world’s largest” 15 lb. pearl known as the Pearl of Allah or  the Pearl of Lao Tze, valued at $35 million, also found off Palawan in 1934.

This nearly 75-pound pearl was found in 2006 inside a clam. Approximately 2 feet long by 1 foot wide, it is valued at $100 million. (Photo Aileen Cynthia Amurao)

Pearls are the only gems in the world to be born and grow inside a living organism. Most are found inside oysters, but very scarcely are they  found in clams – making this clam-found pearl even rarer.

There are many types of rare natural pearls in the world, the most famous of which are the Abernathy Pearl, La Peregrina Pearl, Arco Valley Pearl, Imperial Hong Kong Pearl, Big Pink Pearl, Gogibus Pearl, Jomon Pearl,  Hope Pearl and the Huerfana.

Although many consider the Melo pearl as the rarest pearl in the world, it is not a true pearl since it is non-nacreous, but it is still referred to as a pearl and highly valued, particularly in intense orange hues.

The Nautilus Pearl of Sulu

Perhaps not as valuable and rare as the aforementioned pearls is a Nautilus pearl which was found in the Sulu Sea in the 1800s during the reign of Sulu Sultan Muhammad Jamalul A’zam/Alam, the signatory to the Sabah lease.

The chambered, or pearly, nautilus (Nautilus pompilius) is a charismatic cephalopod species known for its exceptional spiraling, chambered shell. It belongs to a family that has barely changed since appearing in the fossil records around 500 million years ago, leading scientists to describe it as a “living fossil.” Consumer demand for its fractal shell designs are so beguiling that consumer demand threatens its extinction. Two subspecies of N. pompilius have been discovered: N. p. pompilius and N. p. suluensis.

N. p. pompilius is by far the most common and widespread of all nautiluses. It is sometimes called the emperor nautilus due to its large size.  It is found in  the Andaman Sea  east to Fiji  and southern Japan  south to the Great Barrier Reef . Exceptionally large specimens with shell diameters up to 254 mm (10.0 in) have been recorded from Indonesia  and northern Australia. 

Chambered nautilus (Nautilus pompilius suluensis) Photo by shadowshador via flickr

N.P. Suluensis is a much smaller animal, restricted to the Sulu Sea  in the southwestern Philippines, after which it is named. The largest known specimen measured 160 mm in shell diameter.

Nautilus are collected or fished for sale as live animals or to carve the shells for souvenirs and collectibles, not for just the shape of their shells, but also the nacreous inner shell layer, which is used as a pearl  substitute.

Nautilus shells were popular items in the Renaisaance and Baroque cabinet of curiosities and were often mounted by goldsmiths  on a thin stem to make extravagant nautilus shell cups.

Nautilus cup with coat of arms of abbot Aleksander Kęsowski.
(Miguel Hermoso Cuesta) Olympus Digital Camera

Besides its popularity as a material for goldsmiths in the Renaissance and Baroque eras, the spiral of the nautilus’ shell has often been cited as an iconic image for a logarithmic spiral. It is also frequently cited as an example of a golden ratio logarithmic spiral in nature since it is often said to fit precisely within a golden rectangle regardless of its size.

Nautilus Cutaway Logarithmic Spiral
(Chris 73, Wikimedia Commons)

However, while each nautilus shell does maintain the same proportions throughout the animal’s life (that is, it’s a logarithmic spiral), that proportion is generally not the golden ratio. Contrarian studies have proposed that the Nautilus spiral is actually in the 4:3 ratio.

Lost in History

The Nautilus Pearl of Sulu was the  only existing natural Nautilus pearl at the time of its discovery in the 1880s. When the Sultan passed on, his second son inherited the treasure.

According to Alnajir Malli Kadil , son of the late Absara Mammah Kadil, the grandson of the late Panglima Mammah, the pearl was found in a  Nautilus Pompilius Suluensis, a  a sub and dwarf species of Nautilus only found in the Sulu Sea, hence its name.

Sultan Muhammad Jamalul A’zam I taken by taken by French Photographer Joseph Montano possibly in 1880 outside the Astanah Darul Jambangan (Sultan’s Palace) in Maimbung, Sulu.
(Joseph Montano Collection, courtesy of Alnajir Malli Kadil)

“The pearl actually belonged to the first born  whose mother was divorced by the Sultan,” wrote Mr. Kadil in a recent correspondence with the author from the  SOAS (School of Oriental & African Studies) University of London where he was part of a team translating documents from this era written in Bahasa Sug and Bahasa Melayu.

SOAS is recognized as the  world’s leading institution for the study of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It is located in London’s prestigious Bloomsbury area.

As related by Mr. Kadil, the young boy was raised by his mother. When the Sultan first met  him in the Astana Jarul Jambangan (or The Palace of Flowers, was the palace of the Sultanate of Sulu in Maimbung, Sulu), he was thunder struck: the boy looked exactly like him! After a few weeks, he went back to his mother and left the precious pearl with his father.

The Astanah Darul Jambangan (Palace of Flowers) was the palace of the Sultanate of Sulu in Maimbung, Sulu, Philippines.
It was destroyed by a typhoon in 1932.

Being the eldest son, he was entitled to be the Crown Prince. But he declined because he resented his father’s decision to send away his mother in exchange for the pearl.

Instead, he chose the title of Panglima with his father’s blessings, and any succeeding Sultan had to be anointed by himself or his descendants. The young man’s name was  Panglima Mangummah also known as Panglima Sakadudukan. He had three sons: Panglima Sabdani, Imam Rahim and Panglima Mammah,” Mr. Kadil relates.

“I belong to the 5th generation descendants of Panglima Mangummah, son of Sultan Muhammad Jamalul A’zam I,” Mr. Kadil said.

Panglima Mammah with his 14 wives taken by a Canadian who married an English man working for the British North Borneo Company in Sabah. When she visited Sulu in the 1920s she took a photo of him and his wives outside his residence in Tagbak, Indanan, Sulu. Years later she visited Sulu again and took another picture of Panglima Mammah but this time only 10 wives remained. (Photo by Agnes Keith, courtesy of Alnajir Malli Kadil)
Sulu Sultan Hajji Muhammad Badaruddin II taken in Singapore . (SOAS) (courtesy of Alnajir Malli Kadil)

Thus, Sultan Muhammad Jamalul A’zam instead declared his other son, Datu Muhammad Badaruddin II (from his second wife) as Crown Prince or Raja Mudah.  When the Sultan died in 1881, Crown Prince Muhammad Badaruddin II ascended the throne at the young age of 17 years old, but he died only 4 years later.

The Pearl goes to Europe
When Thomas Henry Haynes of the Montebello Islands, northwest Australia, together with one Mr. Chippindale came to Sulu to farm pearls, they had to secure a permit from the Sultan. The two Europeans took advantage of the lucrative pearl trade, and built a pearl farm in Siasi, Sulu. They have stayed there for quiet long time, often traveling from Australia to Sulu thence to UK.

“Haynes acquired a Nautilus pearl from Sulu Sultan Muhammad Badaruddin II in the 1800 during his stay as a pearl trader in Sulu, which he later brought to London,” Mr. Kadil said. “The said nautilus pearl was the only type of pearl in existence until a similar type was found in Sulawesi in 2013.”

The Nautilus Pearl of Sulu was last heard of in 1912, when this article was published in the October 17, 1912 issue of NATURE magazine (HICKSON, S. Nautilus Pearls. Nature 90, 220 (1912)

The Sulu nautilus pearl was featured in page 191 of the October 17, 1912 issue of the French magazine called Nature and hasn’t been heard of since.

However, according to this particular account written by H. Lester Jameson, of the Royal Colonial Institute in London, W.C., this particular pearl was given to Mr.  Haynes by a half-breed Chinaman named Otto, brother-in-law of the late Sultan of Sulu, Mohamed Budderuddin.

The only two extant Nautilus Pearls from Sulu (left) and Sulawesi (right).
(courtesy of Alnajir Malli Kadil)

The pearl was described with “a perfect pear-shape, slightly flattened at the broader end, weighs 18 carats (72 grains), and composed of the porcelaneous (not the nacreous) constituent of the shell. It is somewhat translucent, white, with a slight creamy tinge, rather suggesting fine Beleek china. The broad end, which has apparently been flattened by pressure of the shell upon the pearl sac, is rather more transparent and vitreous.”

Jameson related how Haynes told him natural pearls found in Nautilus are considered unlucky, and usually thrown away by the natives, which was why there was few, if any, examples of such Nautilus Pearls in the West.

“We still don’t know where the pearl is kept to this day,” Mr. Kadil said.


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