August 31, 2010

Cruiser With a (Cortez??) Pearl Earring

The glass case was dusty, its contents looked half forgotten, but the shop keeper pulled out several of the pearl earrings for Meri and I to inspect. The pearls were black and iridescent, and based on the shape and texture they seemed real enough. The jewellery, the shop keeper told us, was made by prisoners in the Santa Rosalia jail. The pearls, he said, came from the Sea of Cortez.

The pearl is part of the Sea’s almost forgotten history. From 1500 to 1800 Mexico was the world's main source of black pearls. Catherine the Great and Marie Antoinette both sported jewels that came from the Sea of Cortez. For almost 300 years ships came from Spain, England, Holland and Russia to trade for the jewels and in response native divers dove for the oysters, killing over a hundred of the creatures just to obtain 3-4 quality pearls.

‘Pearl fever’ outstripped the ability of the “Sea of Pearls” to naturally produce. And as supply dwindled, diving for pearls became progressively more dangerous. The divers forced themselves to go further and deeper, and they returned with fewer and fewer rewards. By 1800, or so, the industry had all but collapsed.

In 1893, the world’s first commercial cultivated pearl oyster farm was started on Isla Espiritu Santo, near La Paz. At its peak, the farm grew 10-million black-lipped pearl oysters and employed over a thousand workers. Compania Criadora de Concha y Perla was mainly in the business of producing mother of pearl—but a surprising by-product was discovered when it turned out that over 12% of the oysters also produced good-quality black pearls.

When the Mexican revolution came, the pearl farm was destroyed. In the decades that followed there were a few poorly executed efforts to rekindle the pearl industry. But for the most part Cortez pearls were forgotten. The oyster beds became extinct and the fabled black pearls of Tahiti (which are not as luminous or colourful as Cortez pearls) took their place in the market.

Knowing this history made me question what I was seeing in that half-empty Santa Rosalia shop that also sold discount flip fops, faded pool toys, and clothes pins. The pearls were imperfect, their shapes irregular and the colours ranged from grey-green to charcoal—but all had the same kind of glowing opalescence that once entranced royalty.

After checking online for pictures of the Cortez pearl, it seemed as though Meri and I had stumbled across something a bit mysterious. We questioned the shop keeper carefully—but all he knew, or could tell us, was that the pearls were local. Who harvested them and whether they were natural or cultivated, we never learned.

A few fishermen still find natural pearls, though not in the numbers they once did. Rumour is they guard their secret oyster beds and the best pearls quickly find their way to dealers of rare gems. Cultivated pearls are grown in two locations; there is a very small government facility near La Paz—with a production that’s said to be fairly poor--and there’s a larger commercial facility, Perlas del Mar de Cortez, near Guaymas (a ferry ride from Santa Rosalia). Perlas del Mar has been producing pearls commercially from rainbow-lipped Pteria sterna oysters for about 10 years. The farm only produces between 4000-5000 pearls a year, and most of the gems go to dealers and collectors.

The Santa Rosalia pearls though, they remain a mystery. They cost a fraction of the cultivated Perlas del Mar pearls and are not nearly as perfect. It also seems unlikely that they are natural pearls, there are too many of them. So we have no idea where they are actually coming from. 

**The update is we were taken. The pearls are your standard issue Chinese freshwater pearl which are dyed using a variety of nasty techniques to look black.


Anonymous said...

Cool! That's fascinating. So where do I need to go to buy my own pearls?

The Crew of Savannah said...

That's pretty cool!
Are you guys heading north anytime soon? We're in and around Bahia de LA...hope to catch up with you again soon.

Fiona said...

Pearl usually symbolizes purity. You can wear it in social gatherings and it makes me feel elegant. A woman who wears pearl accessories is classic, simple yet elegant look. It makes her feel more dazzling amongst the rest.