Rio History: The Pearl of Allah

Special to the PRESS

Legend has it that, feeling death’s approach, Lao Tzu, a sixth century BCE philosopher known as the father of Taoism, gave his nephew a small amulet upon which he had carved representations of Buddha, Confucius and himself — the legendary Three Friends.  He told his nephew he had only to place the amulet securely in a clam and his family would realize great wealth and fortune.

From that day on the amulet was handed down from generation to generation. And sure enough, the family realized all the benefits prophesied by the esteemed philosopher.

As the amulet lay hidden away from the world, it began to transform. Like all mollusks, clams react to foreign objects that lodge against their soft inner body where it cannot be expelled. To ease this irritant, the clam begins to secrete nacre — a smooth, hard crystalline substance — around the object in order to protect itself. As long as the irritant remains within its body, the clam will continue to secrete nacre around it, layer upon layer. Over time, the irritant will be completely encased by the silky crystalline coatings.

After a few generations, the amulet of Lao Tzu was now the core of a great and beautiful pearl. As it grew ever larger, it was transplanted into a Tridacna, or giant clam.

The legend tells of how one day, while the clam that held the pearl was being transported on a trading vessel, a typhoon struck. After losing a race to safety, the ship sank off the coast of the Philippines. The clam and its hidden treasure within a treasure were lost at sea only to be found by a Muslim diver in 1934.

Over the course of the centuries the pearl had continued to grow until it was almost 9.5 inches long and weighed in just shy of 14 pounds. The Muslim diver who found the pearl said its elongated shape bore the image of a turbaned face, and he named it the “Pearl of Allah.”

The pearl was presented to the chief of Palawan and remained in his possession until1939, when a man named Wilburn Dowell Cobb saved the life of the chief’s son and received the pearl in gratitude. After Cobb’s death in 1980, Peter Hoffman, a jeweler from Beverly Hills, bought the pearl from Cobb’s heirs for $200,000. Hoffman later sold part ownership to Joseph Bonicelli, a Colorado Springs businessman. From here, the story becomes murky with many people claiming part ownership of the pearl.

It turns out that Bonicelli hired Delfino Ortega to kill his wife in 1975. After his death in 1998, Ortega was convicted of the murders of Bonicelli’s wife and the wife of Tom Phillips. Phillips also had an interest in the pearl through Bonicelli. The court assigned the pearl to Bonicelli’s children.

Eventually and after many court hearings, Victor Barbish became owner of 66 percent of the pearl on behalf of his daughter with Peter Hoffman retaining one-third share. In 2004, Barbish told a reporter from World Net Daily that he received an offer of $60 million for the pearl in 1999 from several men who said they were “from bin Laden’s group.” Their plan was to present the pearl to Saddam Hussein as an overture of unity between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi government.

That deal never materialized and the pearl became the topic of lawsuits and counter suits.

Today the pearl is once again safely ensconced in a dark place, deep in the bowels of an unknown Denver bank vault.

I wonder this: will the pearl ever again see daylight? And if it does, would the owners consent to a complete scan of the fabled gem to determine if there is truly an amulet bearing the faces of the three friends at its core?

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