The final chapter in the black coral romance story of an artist turned entrepreneur is being written this month with the closing of a small empire of Bernard K. Passman galleries in St. Thomas and the States.
The saga began to sour several years ago with charges of violations against the Endangered Species Act that eventually resulted in jail time and hefty fines for some key players.
Two women who answered separate phone calls to the company’s toll-free client services number Monday both confirmed that the business is closing. The action includes “all the stores, sadly,” one woman said. Neither could speak for the company.
Messages left Monday for Christopher Huntley at the company’s offices in St. Thomas were not returned.
A press release signed “The staff and management of Passman Galleries” was sent to media Monday, saying “we’re offering historically low pricing on our inventory and directing people interested in making purchases to the “remaining gallery” in Maui, 808-662-4212, but announcing that it too will close as of May 10.
Passman, who made his name sculpting and designing jewelry from black coral, died in 2007 at the age of 91, before the enterprise became embroiled in controversy. He started his business in Grand Cayman Island in 1975. He opened a gallery on Main Street in St. Thomas in the early ‘80s and later added a store in Havensight.
His outlets were designed to showcase jewelry for sale amid displays of Passman sculptures. One of his more famous pieces was a miniature of the silent screen star Charlie Chaplin. He was also well known for detailed depictions of musicians and dancers. The Grand Cayman government commissioned Passman to create a 97-piece set of sterling silver and black coral tableware as its wedding gift to Prince Charles and Lady Diana in 1981; the tableware lasted.
Over the years, Passman Galleries opened in Las Vegas, Hawaii, Alaska, New Orleans and Florida.
While there was occasional criticism over the use of coral, it was deflected by company claims that it didn’t harvest living corals and didn’t use species that were considered endangered.
But the galleries owner, GEM Manufacturing LLC, its former president and CEO, Ashu Bhandari and two managers with one of its suppliers, Peng Chia Enterprise Co. Ltd., have all pled guilty to charges related to the importation of protected corals and/or mislabeling the products. See links to related stories below.
In 2011, GEM was ordered to pay a $1.8 million criminal fine, another $500,000 in community service payments for projects to study and protect black coral, and to surrender seven tons of raw coral, 10 sculptures and dozens of jewelry pieces.
In February of this year, Bhandari was ordered to pay $1.1 million.
According to published reports, the company had intermingled banned coral with legal coral in making its products.
Attempts to establish the number of employees were unsuccessful. But at its height the company employed both craftsmen and retail staff.
“We know that you have choices when it comes to the maintenance of your Passman jewelry,” the release states. “As we close our workshops, we would like to introduce you to the Raintree Black Coral Studio. Raintree is headed by a former, long-time Passman craftsman who has over 25 years of jewelry crafting, repair, inlay and setting experience.” Contact information for Raintree is 802-430-4825 or raintreeblackcoral.com