Ed Seitz has enjoyed eating clams all his life, but he never thought something that could have ended up in the trash might be worth a couple thousand dollars.

Seitz was in his Mystic Islands home in Little Egg Harbor Township earlier this month cleaning through about 50 clams a neighbor caught earlier that day in the Great Bay.

As he was cleaning the clams, he noticed something strange inside one of them.

"When I opened it, it looked like a piece of dirt," Seitz said.

Inside was a pearl just shy of a half-inch in diameter and weighing about 91/2 karats. Seitz had never found a pearl inside any of the clams he had eaten over the years, let alone one that was a light shade of purple like what he was holding in his hand.

Seitz knew it was special, but he didn't know how a pearl could appear purple in the first place. And he was confused as to why it was in a clam instead of an oyster.

He also wondered whether he had hit the jackpot. As Ed and his wife, Kitty, did research on the Internet, they saw stories of people thinking purple pearls could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"We'll go wherever we need to go," Ed Seitz said.

They took it to local jewelers to get an idea of what it could be worth. But most jewelers had never seen such an object, so putting a price tag on it was not easy. The Seitzes needed an expert to give them their "Antiques Roadshow" moment in the spotlight.

They needed someone who had seen other purple pearls who could tell them how unusual an item they had. They needed Paul Callomon, a man who surrounds himself every day with millions of examples of shells of marine creatures from across the globe.

Any bivalve can produce a pearl if grit or dirt finds its way inside of it, according to Callomon, collections manager for the Department of Malacology at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

"It's as if they've got a bit of grit in their eyelids, but they don't have arms, and they can't blink," Callomon said.

The clams use shell material to coat the grit in layer upon layer so that it's smoothed over and made more bearable inside of the clam.

Hard-shell clams capable of producing pearls are found from Cape Cod down the Atlantic Coast to Florida. But Callomon said that since clams get shucked or steamed, the pearls tend never to be found in the first place.

Callomon also said that since clams are prepared in restaurants, the cooks may find all sorts of pearls that never make it to the dinner plate.

As Callomon inspected Seitz's purple pearl Wednesday, he had several other examples of pearls from virtually identical clams. All of the pearls had shades of purple, a characteristic of pearls found in clams and related to the waste they produce.

In other words, one clam's trash may be another person's treasure. The waste products are typically purple, so the pearls are a mix of purple and white.

But they didn't look like the pearls on a necklace or in a set of earrings. These pearls come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some were tiny, some were thin and long. One was so misshapen that it resembled an acorn.

Calloman said natural purple pearls from clams are not rare, but they are not as well-known because "people just aren't looking for them."

Their pearl was not anything unique, but that did not stop the Seitzes from picking themselves up and trying again. The pearl was still a beautiful object in their mind, and they still felt it had to have value to someone.

Some people are willing to pay good prices for natural purple pearls. At a Bonhams and Butterfields auction in Los Angeles last December, four natural purple pearls sold for $60,000, the low end of a $60,000 to $80,000 estimate.

Because pearls are more than just pretty clam waste, the Seitz's took the pearl to Freeman's Auction House in Philadelphia, where jewelry specialist Kate Waterhouse saw her first purple pearl in person.

Waterhouse said that about 90 percent of the pearls they see have been "helped" in some way to aid their appearance, which hurts the value.

The pearl that Ed Seitz found July 9 is not as valuable as some. Waterhouse estimated it could be worth in the low thousands of dollars, but its value is more as a curiosity piece than a gemstone.

As it stands, the purple pearl is natural, so it has not been treated at all or specifically made for jewelry. It's also only one pearl, and it has not yet been set in a piece of jewelry such as a ring.

"The private client would go, 'That's great, now what do I do with it?'" Waterhouse said. "They kind of have to use their imagination."

The Seitzes are not done with the purple pearl. Kitty said they will probably take it to more pearl experts to get different opinions.

But after talking with the experts, the purple pearl is not the mysterious round object it was when it was first found.

"We finally have some answers," Kitty said.

E-mail Ben Leach:

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