If you eat a clam or oyster at a restaurant and bite into a pearl, is it yours?

Michael’s Spressler was enjoying a meal of a dozen clams in a Jersey Shore restaurant when he thought that he had lost one of his teeth because something hard was rattling around his mouth. He felt that he was lucky not to have broken a tooth but discovered that the clam that he was eating contained a pearl.

His wife said that he thought his tooth had fallen out but when he had removed it from his mouth, he noticed that it was an almost perfectly round, white pearl potentially worth thousands of dollars.

Mr Spressler's pearl

Mr Spressler’s pearl. Photo: Mr Spressler (presumed). The coin is a dime.

The couple were dining at The Lobster House in the seaside resort of Cape May. The clam was caught by the restaurant’s own commercial fleet. The management was shocked and said that it had never happened before.

“For all the years that we were going down there, as soon as we would get off the Garden State Parkway and go over the bridge, our first stop would be The Lobster House to eat, because to me they have the best seafood in Jersey,” he said.

The Pearl measures 8.83 mm across (diameter). They’ve not yet had it valued which depends upon its lustre. If it is shiny and has no blemishes it may be very valuable at around $5000-$10,000. If it is not such a high-quality pearl it may be worth around $500.

The story begs the question as to whether Michael owns the pearl. Or the restaurant?

My research indicates that the answer turns on the question of intent. Did the customer intend to buy the clam and the whole clam, i.e. all the contents of the clam or just the edible contents of the clam? And from the other side of the coin, did the restaurant intend to sell the entire contents of the clam or just the fleshy edible bit?

The answer is probably that the seller sold the entire contents of the clam and the buyer bought the entire contents. On that basis Mr Spressler can claim ownership to the clam and sell it. My advice to anyone who has this experience is to keep the pearl. Don’t give it up to the restaurant manager.

As you might know, pearls are formed when a foreign body makes its way into a clam or oyster and the creature protects itself by depositing layers of liquid around the object which hardens to form a pearl. The foreign body might be a grain of sand, a bit of food, bacteria or a piece of the mollusc’s shell trapped inside. The liquid that the mollusc secretes contains aragonite (a mineral) and conchiolin (a protein).

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