Concho Pearls of West Texas
Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado was convinced that
somewhere in the American Southwest the Seven Cities of Gold existed.
Years of searching cost the lives of hundreds of Indian guides
and soldiers, who found little gold and lots of hardship along the
Fast forward about 430 years to 1969, and you'll find Bart Mann
and Jack Morgan sloshing through Fisher Lake in West Texas, spending
their days prying stunningly colored pearls from thousands of native
''There's a pearl here that for all the world looks like a child's
top. It absolutely looks like it's been turned on a lathe,'' said
Mark Priest, who joined Morgan in 1976. ''That pearl's loose, and
it's not for sale. Someone would have to want it really bad.''
Priest left Morgan to open rival Legend Jewelers on San Angelo's
oldest block in 1994. Recently, the men have reunited at a larger
store space on the first floor of Miss Hattie's Bordello Museum,
a 100-year old former house of ill repute.
We are fortunate in that Mark Priest, one of the partners of puretexan.com,
and owner of Legend Jewelers, worked for many years with Jack until
he retired and closed Bart Mann Originals. Mark and Jack still speak
at least once a week and remain friends today.
From this friendship, Mark has one of the finest collections of
natural, freshwater Concho pearls in the world. The Concho pearls
are found in the Concho rivers and lakes around San Angelo, Texas.
One of the things that brought puretexan.com partners Randy
and Mark together was the display of Concho pearls Mark had set
up at a Gemologist workshop in the mid 1980's.
Randy was held spellbound by the beauty of the Native Texas Pearls
and the tales Mark weaved of fending off Water Moccasins while mining
pearls from the West Texas Lakes and Rivers. The state requires
a $35 permit for pearl hunters. Priest said the ones who do it regularly
have to be dedicated to the sometimes slimy job.
''They have good days and bad days,'' Priest said. ''In a full
day they might find three to four pearls, or sometimes they'll come
in with three to four big ones and a half dozen small ones.
Shell collectors often venture far and wide in pursuit of unique
mollusks. Yet travelers to the other side of the planet after that
special shell may be overlooking an especially unique species right
at home. Long before Lyndon Johnson carried his dog around by its
ears, before Davy Crockett ever fired Old Betsy at the Alamo, and
before the Yellow Rose of Texas first rolled in the hay with Santa
Ana, early Spanish explorers ventured into western Texas in search
of the Tampico pearlymussel (Cyrtonaias tampicoensis; family Unionidae)
and the gem-quality freshwater pearls it frequently produces. Clemmens
(1981) reported how Hernan Martin and Diego del Castillo arrived
in 1650 near what is now the city of San Angelo on the Concho River
(river of shells) in western Texas.
Pearls they obtained there were sent back to Sante Fe and caused
enough excitement that in 1654, Diego de Guadalajara was also sent
into the area to locate as many pearls as possible. Some reports
suggest excessive harvest of mussels and others mention enlisting
the local Indians in the pearl- harvest efforts. Most agree the
number of pearls obtained were apparently well below Spanish expectations.
For at least 400 years the waterways of West Texas have produced
the coveted pink to purple colored Concho Pearls. The pearls are
found in freshwater mussel shells which live in the area lakes and
The name "Concho" (meaning "shell" in Spanish)
comes from the plentiful freshwater mussels that inhabit the area's
rivers and streams and produce the beautiful iridescent gems of
all sizes and colors - but especially the big purple ones - called
"Concho pearls" by the early Spanish explorers.
The lavender and pink pearls were no secret to folks around the
Concho River, which runs from the west through San Angelo before
flowing into the Colorado River. Area ranchers and others had noted
the pearls for years.
The mystery shrouding a pearl's birth has intrigued civilizations
for millennia, fortifying its reputation as the sovereign emblem
of beauty, purity and wealth.
In nature, a pearl is formed when a foreign object enters the mussel
shell and cannot be expelled. As protection against the irritant,
the mussel coats the object with layers of a fine crystalline substance
Legend has it that several items from the Spanish crown jewels
contain some of the earliest known examples of the beautifully colored
The West Texas area is one of the few places in the world that
produces natural pearls... much less in pink, peach, and purple
hues. Varying in color from light pinks to dark purple and lavender,
these unique pearls also vary in size, and shapes from spherical