Myth #2: The Aquaculture of Pearls in Spain
It is fascinating to meet with people from all over the world, specially if they are seasoned travelers…they always have interesting stories to share with us and we appreciated their talk and sharing of experiences, specially when they have previously visited other pearl farms in Japan, Tahiti or Australia EXCEPT when someone comes up with their “Mallorca Pearl Farm Visit”. The typical description is that they have seen divers retrieving the always perfectly round pearls that seem to come in only 4 basic colors.
Spain is, indeed, a great aquaculture producer…but its main products revolve around edible shellfish production: scallops, mussels and edible oysters. These species of bivalves are usually produced in the northern part of Spain, on the coastline of Galicia, where they grow three very tasty and valuable species: the Mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis), the “Vieira” or Queen scallop (Pecten maximus) and the european rock oyster (Ostrea edulis). But none of these species are able of producing nacreous pearls (they would produce “calcium concretions” or “non-nacreous pearls“) so they cannot look like the “Mallorca Pearl”. Let us look into this more closely then…
The so called production of these famous “european pearls” is found in the city of Manacor, Spain, and… where is this place??? It is a beautiful spot in the Mediterranean Sea (see map, courtesy of Google Earth), an area that has not been known or recognized -not today nor in ancient times- as a great pearl producer. Also, take note that Manacor is on an island…but not right next to the sea but some kilometer away from it. This can only mean then that the pearls and their oysters are being grown in special ponds or lakes or maybe even in rivers… but examining the city with Google Maps or any similar program will not reveal any evidence of large lakes/ponds suitable for a grand scale production of pearl oysters nor mussels.
Very well then… they must grow the pearls and their oysters in the ocean and haul them into the city as needed. What variety of pearl oyster could they use to produce their pearls? Let us do a bit of research…hmm, we seem to find very few sources that include information on pearl fisheries -past and present- inside the Mediterranean Sea. Let us use Sohei Shirahi’s excellent book “Pearls & Pearl Oysters of the World” and let us see…weird… no pearl oysters reported in that area of the Mediterranean. The only information we find is that from another great book -actually a “grand classic” on the subject- Kunz and Stevenson’s (1908) “The Book of the Pearl” which cites that a man by the last name of Vassel states that in 1896 , the “Akoya Pearl Oyster” (Pinctada imbricata) made its way into the Mediterranean by way of the Suez Canal and can now be found in limited areas of Tunisia, North Africa. Yet, there is another pearl oyster in the region: the “Mediterranean Winged Oyster” (Pteria hirundo) which can be found in Turkey and Italy. There is not a single report of these species for the Spanish island of Mallorca. The following map can give us a clearer idea of the worldwide distribution of pearl oysters (based on Shirai, 1994).
Well then, if there are NO pearl oysters nor pearly mussels in Spain nor in its island of Majorca… what gave rise to this myth? It is hard to know, but we all know how half-truths have an easy way of propagating… like summer grass on fire. It is a fact that the Spaniards have always stated that their so-called “pearls” are just as beautiful -or better- than their cultured pearl counterparts, or even state that their product is manufactured using “marine materials” but I have never seen an advertisement or article that states that they “grow” their pearls inside living oysters. But some people are…that is for sure. For what reason or to what ends? You can be the judge. So, let us go to an “official” “Majorca Pearls” website, from where I extracted the following text:
“Majorca pearls are imitation pearls manufactured on the Spanish island of Majorca in the Mediterranean. Local women there have specialized in the artistic fabrication of faux pearls since the 19th Century. These pearls have such a resemblance to the natural cultivated pearls that only experts can tell them apart.”
That last part about only experts being able to tell them apart is a hoax (in future posts we will try to help you identify all sorts of pearls, including fakes…which are very easy).
But for now I believe that it is quite clear that these imitations or “faux perles” are not grown from live organisms, but a product of Human manufacture. But, for those that will still believe otherwise… I have -for the first time on the Internet- a perfectly preserved specimen of the very elusive “Majorcan Pearl Oyster” (scientifically named: Plasticus artifactus). The specimen can be admired at our Museum-like display at the Pearl-Shop in Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico… so stop for a visit, don’t miss on this unique opportunity!
If you have questions or an interesting subject to suggest, please feel free to make your comments known on this Blog…see you in a couple of weeks!