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Collector Obsession: A Jewelry Lover Dishes on a Lifelong Love of Pearls Initiated by Her Dad

The Fairy Princess necklace in high-karat gold featuring Sea of Cortez keshi pearls and diamond beads. The piece was made by Kojima Pearl.

Lehigh Valley, Pa. Feb. 2, 2021. Cathy is a retired businesswoman whose love of pearls was established early in life by her father, who, as a child, found natural freshwater pearls in mollusks in the streams surrounding his Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, home.

“For years, the family had a baby food jar full of pearls that they intended to make their mother a necklace out of,” she recollects.

This early curiosity about pearls sparked the same interest in his daughter, who has gone on to collect so many pieces that it’s hard for her to inventory them all.

As most collections do, Cathy’s started out modestly. Her mom bought her a rice pearl necklace with lovely rainbow reflections and a nice orient from a department store in Reading, Pa., and when she entered the workforce, she bought her own cultured white akoya earrings. With each purchase, her curiosity grew. “I like to know the ‘how’ and ‘why,’” she says. Of course, the beauty of pearls themselves inspired Cathy to keep collecting, too.

So, when she inherited a small sum more than 20 years ago, she and husband Walter decided to spend some of it on a vintage cultured akoya pearl strand with a platinum clasp featuring diamonds. Around the same time, she bought two pieces of freshwater pearl jewelry from Honora—a necklace and a bracelet—because she saw founder Joel Schechter (now retired) on QVC talking about the pieces. The bracelet had a keshi pearl, an all-nacre pearl that is a byproduct of the culturing process. Cathy was mesmerized. “I thought those were the most beautiful things I had ever seen, and they weren’t the perfect little round grandmother’s pearl that you typically see,” she says.

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She started reading everything she could about keshi pearls, searching the Internet and online chat rooms. In the process, she met Cindy, another pearl fan, who introduced her to pearlguide.com, a premiere destination for pearl information. Once Cathy joined pearlguide.com and was surrounded by new friends and collectors who shared her passion for pearls, her habit took a dramatic turn. (Cathy even has the appropriate online moniker CathyKeshi!)

From this point on, Cathy was in deep. She bought keshi pearl strands and enlisted Hisano Shepherd, co-owner of PearlParadise.com and founder of little h. jewelry, renowned for her pearl geode styles, to make custom pieces. She soaked up the vast knowledge that her new friends, including Jeremy Shepherd, PearlParadise.com founder, generously shared.
“Pearls had given me this whole new world of friends who shared my curiosity and asked the same questions I did,” says Cathy. Something else she learned? “Pearls are for everyone—not just movie stars or millionaires.”

Eliko Pearl has specialty pearls of all types, including Maki-e mosaic pearls, faceted pearls, and blue akoyas.

After nine years of online exchanges, Cathy’s friend Cindy encouraged her to attend her first-ever Pearl Ruckus, a private three-day event hosted by PearlParadise.com for their top collectors. The Ruckus was equal parts shopping (with Pearl Paradise and other pearl dealers) and education, and Cathy saved up, intent on buying even better-quality pearls than she’d purchased to date. Tahitian pearls were top of mind.


As soon as she arrived, she made a beeline to see Kamoka Pearl. The proprietors of the family-run Tahitian pearl farm lived stateside, making trips to and from the farm while creating pearl jewelry in between. Their booth was packed! They asked her to come back. So Cathy moved on to see Sarah Canizzaro of Kojima Pearl, who consistently carries unusual pearls and pearl jewelry. Canizzaro had something unusual: a strand of Pteria Penguin pearls, a species of marine bivalve mollusk in the Pteriidae family that is found in the Indo-Pacific region. They were white, cream, rose, pink, and silver pearls, a soft-looking beautiful variety that Canizzaro told her were difficult to culture. Cathy was smitten. “I picked them up and never put them down,” she says.

Not long after, Douglas McLaurin, a longtime pearl educator and one of the aquaculture experts who helped bring the Sea of Cortez oyster back to fruition in Mexico, showed Cathy some Sea of Cortez keshi pearls. They were undrilled and in two little bags, and Cathy ended up buying both. Canizzaro brought them back to her workshop and set them in a high-karat gold necklace with tiny diamond beads, a style that Cathy and dealer friends call the Fairy Princess necklace.

On the third day of the Ruckus—a day set aside for shopping at the Pearl Paradise office—Cathy was ready to finally get some Tahitians! She wanted a strand of circles for their interesting shape and vibrant colors of nacre that pool in the rings, but as she got lost in the depth of inventory in the vault, she ended up going home with not one, but two Tahitian strands. (Eventually, she did buy Tahitian pearls from Kamoka as well.)

Since that time, Cathy has added a strand of white South Sea pearls, a natural pistachio-color strand of Vietnamese-origin akoya pearls, a mixed strand of white and golden South Sea baroque pearls, silver-blue Tahitians, multicolor round Tahitians, metallic freshwater pearls, Fiji pearls, and more—much more.

“There’s a whole world of pearls out there that are not in stores,” she says. “I’m continually amazed at what nature can create, that a living animal can create such objects of art.”

The Pteria Penguin pearl strand Cathy bought from Kojima Pearl

The Pteria Penguin pearl strand Cathy bought from Kojima Pearl

The “Four Musketeers,” from left to right, youngest to oldest: Jim, Cletus (Cathy's Dad), Leo, and Charlie. Cathy’s uncles and dad would collect mussels and freshwater pearls from the Pennsylvania mountain streams surrounding their home in the 1930s when they were kids.

The “Four Musketeers,” from left to right, youngest to oldest: Jim, Cletus (Cathy’s Dad), Leo, and Charlie. Cathy’s uncles and dad would collect mussels and freshwater pearls from the Pennsylvania mountain streams surrounding their home in the 1930s when they were kids.

The Fairy Princess necklace in high-karat gold featuring Sea of Cortez keshi pearls and diamond beads. The piece was made by Kojima Pearl.

The Fairy Princess necklace in high-karat gold featuring Sea of Cortez keshi pearls and diamond beads. The piece was made by Kojima Pearl.

White South Sea pearl strand with a karat-gold nautical clasp purchased from PearlParadise.com

White South Sea pearl strand with a karat-gold nautical clasp purchased from PearlParadise.com

A circle strand of Tahitian pearls purchased from PearlParadise.com. Early on in Cathy’s pearl collecting days, she thought she might only purchase one strand of Tahitians. Ha ha—rookie mistake! Today, she’s lost count of how many she owns.

A circle strand of Tahitian pearls purchased from PearlParadise.com. Early on in Cathy’s pearl collecting days, she thought she might only purchase one strand of Tahitians. Ha ha—rookie mistake! Today, she’s lost count of how many she owns.


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