Archive for the 'Natural Pearls' Category
I have been a “Pink Floyd” fan ever since my childhood friend’s brother tortured us both with a continuous -high volume- session of the Album “The Wall”. At first we were scared (Faustino’s intentions were to expel us out of the room), but then we became addicted to the music. The scheme did not work for him, but worked nicely for us. One of the albums I came to enjoy in the early 1980’s was “A Nice Pair”…and when you see these giant pearls you’ll have to agree it is a good name for this blog entry.
This summer presented itself with many challenges and opportunities, but also with unique experiences. We had a chance to visit a certain pearl collector, who had recently acquired two incredible natural Gulf of California pearls: one being a huge “Black Lip Oyster” (Pinctada mazatlanica) white pearl, and the other a large drop-shaped “Rainbow Lip Oyster” (Pteria sterna) pearl. As I’ve stated before: both were NATURAL PEARLS. In two decades of working with pearls we had never seen any like these, so we had to share this experience with all of you.
Pearl #1: The Big Yaqui
I gave this pearl this nick-name for a couple of reasons: 1) we were told that the person that obtained the pearl is from a Yaqui community in the southern part of Sonora, and 2) it is BIG!
This silvery-white baroque pearl was produced from a large, probably very old, “Black Lipped Pearl Oyster” that was fished out of the northern part of the coast of Sonora. When we saw this pearl, it had some brown colored protein deposits on the surface (they can be easily removed) and one of those spots even had the shape of a tiny “rainbow lip oyster” baby (spat)! The pearl was examined under long wave UV light to check for fluorescence and it had the typical blue glow of most pearls: just as expected from a Pinctada pearl.
The pearl weighed in at 106 Carats (21.2 grams)…a true solid beauty!…well, once you peel off some of the brown colored protein.
Pearl #2: The Mermen’s Teardrop
Now, as most of you already know (if you’ve been a loyal follower of this blog) the “Rainbow Lipped Pearl Oyster” is not considered to be a large sized oyster, but more of a medium sized animal so it cannot produce a pearl as Huge as the first one…but this pearl was still quite a find! It was fished out by a local diver.
This beautiful baroque drop-shaped pearl (its actual shape is that of a squished drop) weighed in at 15 carats (3 grams), and it was also inspected under long wave UV: it shone with a beautiful dark red color, typical of pearls produced by Pteria sterna.
Well, we have a new addition to our “Pearl Museum”: an incredible “Rainbow Lip Oyster” shell with a bubbly-looking blister pearl. It is not the blister pearl that makes the shell so special but its size: it measures 12 cm in diameter, and weighs in at 165 grams (just one valve). The largest previous shell we had collected measured 14 cm and has a weight of a mere 44 grams.
What does this mean? That the “heavy” shell is comes from an long-lived animal: the shells of this species thicken (and become heavy) with age. We believe that this species can live to be –at the most- 8 years old, but the vast majority of individuals will die at an age between 5 to 6 years old. So this shell in particular is our “Metuselah” specimen: the oldest “Rainbow Lipped Oyster” we have been able to find (so far).
You may see this –and other shells- in our small museum display that we have next to our jewelry store, featuring many varieties of pearly shells from the world’s oceans, but if you want to see it now just take a look at the following photo:
To the left you see the Pteria sterna shell, and to the right, a big (but not too old) Pinctada mazatlanica shell (measuring 15 cm).
We are still caught in the middle of the 2012 Pearl Harvest, so I have been too busy to post these last weeks: it has been a most interesting summer! Not only do we have the harvest, but we had the chance to have some very special guests here at the farm in what has been called a “Cortez Pearl Safari”.
This event was coordinated from Mexico City’s by GIA accredited gemologist Diana Benoit-Seegrove (Director of the “Instituto Geológico y de Alta Relojería de México, A.C.) . So, at the start of the month of June we had some 26 visitors at the farm, who visited us for two days, in order to:
- Harvest Pearls!
- Learn about the History of the Gulf of California pearl
- Pearl Quality & Grading
- Shop for Cortez Pearls
Our special guests were treated in full V.I.P. fashion: the choiciest oysters for harvesting, a trip to the pearl farm, they even had the chance of performing the solemn yearly “Pearl Offering” (when we basically dispose of all the pearls that did not attain our quality standards), they were offered delicious pearl-scallop delicacies as well (ceviche & aguachile) made from the delicious meat of the “Rainbow Lipped” pearl oyster.
This event was a tremendous success and had to be repeated just one week ago with a different, smaller, group of talented designers and jewelry owners.
Does this sound interesting to you? Would you like to participate in next year’s “Cortez Pearl Safari”? Just give us a call and we’ll find a way to fit you in.
And here I am back, with a strong desire to revisit the series of posts about the legendary pearl diver knows as "El Mechudo", and on this instance we will cover the most grim and tragic event from the history of this legend: the death of this blasphemous Yaqui pearl diver.
The last time we dealt with this subject was back in January 6th with the entry of “Who was ‘El Mechudo’?”, and on that occasion we detailed the possible site from where the pearl oysters where being fished and where this legendary diver is said to have drowned. Now comes the time to analyze and dissect the manner of his tragic death by reviewing several versions of this legend:
“One of the many Yaqui indians -before he slid into the watery embrace to find the pearl that belonged to the Virgin- said “I am claiming the pearl for the Devil”… Chronicles tell us that the unfortunate man never came out of the sea and that all his companions fled in terror and commenting on the outcome of that terrible blasphemy.” (Author and Date unknown)
Another version of the event, cited by Fernando Jordan (1967) even mentions that: Satan took the fisherman’s word, and the fisherman did not reappear and the waters did not return his body. The place is now taboo and no one goes there to fish for pearls. Those who have seen -at the bottom- the ghost of the blasphemous diver, who has grown long haired and beard. He seems alive and in his hand he holds a huge Black-lip pearl oyster shell. Or even this version, that I personally heard –totally devoid of the supernatural-in La Paz about 10 years ago, and which I have adapted as follows: ‘El Mechudo’ went once more into the salty embrace of those turquoise waters…never coming out again. But there was no time to find out what had happened to him…bad weather just made it impossible. The next morning the fishing armada made it to the same spot and the divers plunged into the waters. A certain diver screamed out "I found him! I found him!" and every single diver moved into that spot. What they saw was a spectral image: the lifeless body of "El Mechudo" still clutching the giant oyster that had caught his hand in self-defense… his long hair had come loose and flowed all around him. The very obvious cause of death of the legendary diver is by drowning, and this could have occurred due to many causes: fatigue, vascular problems, he could have become "entangled" in some way or have suffered the attack of an animal. The legend somehow suggests that the pearl oyster might have had something to do with his death: that the diver’s hand had been captured by the oyster, preventing him from surfacing. But in addition, we understand that there is a permanence of the drowned diver on the site, his body being found there later… and this in turn ends the legend with a “haunted pearl bed”, an accursed ghost that scares off all other divers. So, the death of “El Mechudo” leads us to the myth of the “killer clam”, the basic premise being a clam -or pearl oyster- that is big and heavy enough to keep a diver from surfacing…just long enough for him to drown. And in this case the oyster is also able of keeping the captured hand (alongside the rest of the body) clutched down a sufficient amount of time (at least over 24 hours) for the other divers to find his a body in the same spot. This would give rise to the myth of the “Murderous Oyster” (to give it a quirky adjective). Is this possible at all? Can an oyster keep a man trapped that long? Let us find out…
Another version of the event, cited by Fernando Jordan (1967) even mentions that:
Satan took the fisherman’s word, and the fisherman did not reappear and the waters did not return his body. The place is now taboo and no one goes there to fish for pearls. Those who have seen -at the bottom- the ghost of the blasphemous diver, who has grown long haired and beard. He seems alive and in his hand he holds a huge Black-lip pearl oyster shell.
Or even this version, that I personally heard –totally devoid of the supernatural-in La Paz about 10 years ago, and which I have adapted as follows:
‘El Mechudo’ went once more into the salty embrace of those turquoise waters…never coming out again. But there was no time to find out what had happened to him…bad weather just made it impossible. The next morning the fishing armada made it to the same spot and the divers plunged into the waters. A certain diver screamed out "I found him! I found him!" and every single diver moved into that spot. What they saw was a spectral image: the lifeless body of "El Mechudo" still clutching the giant oyster that had caught his hand in self-defense… his long hair had come loose and flowed all around him.
The very obvious cause of death of the legendary diver is by drowning, and this could have occurred due to many causes: fatigue, vascular problems, he could have become "entangled" in some way or have suffered the attack of an animal. The legend somehow suggests that the pearl oyster might have had something to do with his death: that the diver’s hand had been captured by the oyster, preventing him from surfacing. But in addition, we understand that there is a permanence of the drowned diver on the site, his body being found there later… and this in turn ends the legend with a “haunted pearl bed”, an accursed ghost that scares off all other divers.
So, the death of “El Mechudo” leads us to the myth of the “killer clam”, the basic premise being a clam -or pearl oyster- that is big and heavy enough to keep a diver from surfacing…just long enough for him to drown. And in this case the oyster is also able of keeping the captured hand (alongside the rest of the body) clutched down a sufficient amount of time (at least over 24 hours) for the other divers to find his a body in the same spot. This would give rise to the myth of the “Murderous Oyster” (to give it a quirky adjective). Is this possible at all? Can an oyster keep a man trapped that long? Let us find out…
The "Mortal Clamp"
Pearl oysters are bivalve mollusks that have a strong adductor muscle which is used to achieve the closure of its two shells, this is used in order for the oyster to protect itself and avoid being eaten by predators; a bivalve’s life is partially dependent on its ability to close and keep its shells closed. If we introduce our fingers into an oyster it will certainly close its valves and it will clamp our hand… and what happens if we cannot release from its hold? In a few minutes we will drown.
Now, even if the oyster closes its shell with our hand in it, what prevents us from simply coming up with the oyster to the surface? Well, oysters are strongly attached to their living place (usually on rocks, corals and other shells) by means of a myriad of thin, elastic fibers referred to as "byssal threads" which are secreted by the byssal gland. These fibers look a bit like plastic, are somewhat elastic and very resistant, but will it be able to securely anchor the oyster when a person is desperately fighting for dear life? To answer both questions, I conducted the following “experiment”: I went “pearl diving” securing several Black lip pearl oysters (Pinctada mazatlanica), and intentionally placing my fingers inside them to simulate the “mortal clamp” and then it was a matter of coming out with my life. The result of this simple experiment can be seen in this short video:
Now, even if the oyster closes its shell with our hand in it, what prevents us from simply coming up with the oyster to the surface? Well, oysters are strongly attached to their living place (usually on rocks, corals and other shells) by means of a myriad of thin, elastic fibers referred to as "byssal threads" which are secreted by the byssal gland. These fibers look a bit like plastic, are somewhat elastic and very resistant, but will it be able to securely anchor the oyster when a person is desperately fighting for dear life?
To answer both questions, I conducted the following “experiment”: I went “pearl diving” securing several Black lip pearl oysters (Pinctada mazatlanica), and intentionally placing my fingers inside them to simulate the “mortal clamp” and then it was a matter of coming out with my life. The result of this simple experiment can be seen in this short video:
The first fishing event –described as “Capture #1” in the video- shows the usual living place for black-lips in Guaymas: attached to rocky reefs at depths ranging from almost surface level and down to some 10 meters in depth (20 feet). The oysters are now –once again- seen forming small clusters, and several of these make up for a pearl bed. I dislodged oysters quite easily…in just seconds and with no effort.
Fishing event "Capture # 2", was carried out at a depth of 4 meters (13 feet), on sandy bottom (but littered with pebbles and shell bits of various bivalves). On this substrate, pearl oysters usually attach to shells and on the video it is clearly visible how the oyster is easily released and comes up with a fragment of a “pen shell”. The oyster measured 10 cm (4 inches) in diameter and had another -smaller- pearl oyster “piggy-backing” on its shell.
In the third fishing event (capture #3), at a depth of only 3 meters (9.8 feet), we had an area of overlapping environments: mainly sandy bottom, but with the presence of encrusting corals and a small rocky reef nearby. I located a small group of black-lips and it was extremely easy to release a group of three oysters simultaneously.
And finally, I introduced my fingers several times inside different black-lip oysters and every time I obtained the same result: the oysters quickly closed their shells on my fingers and they held me as hard as it was possible for them, yet it was very easy to release my fingers in just seconds, thus my life was never in any danger. Just in case my mother or my wife ever read this blog entry: these experiments were performed at a depth of just a mere 1.50 meters (4.9 feet), so I was never under any duress nor undue risk.
And finally, I introduced my fingers several times inside different black-lip oysters and every time I obtained the same result: the oysters quickly closed their shells on my fingers and they held me as hard as it was possible for them, yet it was very easy to release my fingers in just seconds, thus my life was never in any danger. Just in case my mother or my wife ever read this blog entry: these experiments were performed at a depth of just a mere 1.50 meters (4.9 feet), so I was never under any duress nor undue risk.
How did the myth of the "Mortal Clamp" or of the "Killer Clam" (or whatever name you want to give it) emerge? Well, there are other varieties of bivalves in the World’s oceans, some being HUGE in size and of very HEAVY weight, which are quite capable of keeping a man stuck long enough to drown him. In fact, a there exists a particular animal known as the "giant clam" (Tridacna gigas), that is sometimes referred of as a “killer clam” (perfect title for a future Hollywood film), which inhabits the Indo-Pacific ocean, and which is perfectly suited to become a nightmare for any pearl diver. Just look at this cute photograph (taken from this page):
Wikipedia’s website even mentions that a U.S. Navy diver’s manual includes a technique that can be used by divers to rid themselves of the deadly clamp of this species of clam, and refers to the death of a Phillipino pearl diver which drew the gigantic “Pearl of Lao Tzu”, a huge calcareous concretion (or non-nacreous pearl) that was obtained from one of these giant clams.
- It’s really not all that difficult to fish for pearl oysters, given that there is sufficient abundance of them; the hardest thing about “pearl diving” will be the depth you have to dive down to in order to extract them and this only if you are using your lung capacity.
- There is no real danger of drowning once you are “captured” by a black-lip’s valves: its “claw of death” lacks the necessary strength to maintain an unbreakable grip. Furthermore: it is not difficult to remove them from their attachment point in the unlikely case they do.
Until next time…
And we are back, with what will be the New Year’s first installment of our Cortez Pearl Blog, and for this year we hope to become your source for all interesting pearl related legends & environmental stories, plus other things interest. We truly can be considered a “micro-cosmic-blog” within the Internet, since all the “big bloggers” concentrate on the “macro-cosmic” nature of the internet: computers, smartphones, music, file-sharing and all sorts of money making ventures…this blog is for the few that love and care for this beautiful and unique aquatic gem: Welcome Back!
On October 5 I published the entry about “The Pearl of the Virgin” which detailed the observance of the region’s pearl divers to the Virgin of Loreto, so that she extended her mantle of protection against the dangers of the sea and to help them procure a good yield of pearls. Now it is the turn to talk about the man in whom this legend is embodied, and in order to continue our analysis we must start with a couple of questions: Who was this “Mechudo” diver? and Where did the story/legend take place?
The Identity of “El Mechudo”
On the identity of this man, very little is really known, but some information can be extracted from the myth. One thing is sure: nobody knows his name or his true origin, but all the stories tell of a diver of exceptional ability, most likely he belonged to the Sonoran Yaqui Indian Nation, and we also know that he was possessed of a huge black mane of hair, and hence the nickname of “El Mechudo” or –losely translated- “The mop” or “Long Haired One”, “mechudo” meaning “long & shaggy hair”. It is said that his diver’s was so long and dense that he never used a hat, instead, he tied his hair in a way that it served him as shade and protection from the harsh sun-rays.
Another reason we believed him to have been a native-American man -or mestizo or half-breed- from Sonora is that some sources mention another nickname that this diver also received: “Guama”, an incorrect wording of the voice “Guaima”, which was the name of a band-clan of natives (believed to have been of the Seri or Kum Kaak nation) who lived in Guaymas, at the time of the arrival of the Spaniards in Sonora. Here we have a small promotional video about this fascinating culture of the Sea of Cortez…it is in Spanish, but the photography is truly nice:
Anyway, at that the time when the legend developed, the best pearl divers were the Yaqui of Sonora, so it is inferred that he was just one of the thousands who were employed in the extraction of pearl oysters, but he could have been from any other place. But, the “Guama” nickname is basically telling us that he was a “Guaymense”, a man from Guaymas.
The Place of Action
But legend has it that our long-haired diver had no luck in fishing for pearls on a fateful day, in an unknown year of the late nineteenth century (probably in 1897, since this event is recorded in a local newspaper from La Paz), the events probably occurring between the months of May to September, when pearl fishing was practiced in the Gulf of California. But even with this information we simply do not have the way to know the exact day on which this event occurred.
Another unknow fact is the precise spot where this tragic event took place, because some documents state it happened just north of the city of La Paz, in the Baja California peninsula, whereas others went as far as mentioning more precise coordinates:
Southwest of San Jose Island and 12 km from the bay of “La Amortajada”,
40 miles north from the port of La Paz and 50 miles in front of the island of “San Francisquito”
between 24° 42′ 30″ N and 110° 40′ W (according to the old newspaper from La Paz).
However, the site is that is presently called “Punta El Mechudo” (or “Long-haired Point”) is located north of the Bay of La Paz, at 24° 48′ 26.30″ N and 110° 39′ 37.90″ W, and here we have some images of site (courtesy of Google Earth ):
A visual inspection of the area reveals that there is a small sandy beach, a good place for resting and for a fishermen’s camp; but viewed from above we hardly see the presence of “dark spots” in the water, these being an indirect indication that we are in the presence of rocky/coral reefs (or even in patches of algae), which would be suitable for pearl fishing.
Although, at a closer look we can also discover that at a relatively small distance from the point (see arrow), and at a higher depth, there are some kind of aggregates seen on top of the sandy bottom; these could be made of rocks and green coral heads (Porites sp.). These Porites or green corals are very common in the Gulf of California, and they are known to have Black-lipped pearl oysters attached to them. At this point it seems this would be a good area for pearl fishing. In the next photo you can see how these corals are shaped, depending on the environment they grow in: they are sometimes found as encrusting types (when growing on top of large rocks) and they sometimes form “clumps” or “heads” when growing in calm, shallow and sandy areas. We have been in areas where they are abundant in their massive form, as in “Espiritu Santo” Island, while in Guaymas they are often seen encrusting on rocks.
At this moment we know a lot more about the man -the main character- in our story, and we also know a lot more about the location where the legend took place. In the next installment will continue “chipping away” the legend of the “Devil’s Pearl”.
We wish all of our readers a Happy & Successful New Year!!!
Here again with information we believe will be of interest to you, although we are taking a slight detour from our “Legend of El Mechudo” series (while I finalize the short video) and because many have asked us how Mabe pearls (or half-pearls, as they are also known) are produced, and how come they end with with a dome-like or hemispherical shape.
Some people think Mabe pearls are just pearls that have been cut in half (on the first photo we see a pearl cut in half –sometimes called 3/4 pearls- and a Mabe to its right), or when they see the Mabe still in their host-shell they may comment that it is obvious that the pearl is growing from the shell and that it will eventually become detached from it, or that they are “aborted pearls” and they just needed more time to “pop out” of the shell, a fully fledged and normal pearl, but they are mistaken.
Let us begin by explaining a bit about the origin of the equivalent of the Mabe pearl in Nature, followed by some of the initial techniques for their cultivation, until we revisit some of the modern-day techniques employed to grow this beautiful product.
But first: the natural origin of these “attached pearls”… a product that has been known under the name of “Blister Pearls” and of which we have already discussed in detail, but we will shortly review in this post as well.
As the name implies, these natural pearls resemble “skin blisters”. Many of these pearls look like a “bubble” on the inner shell of the pearl oyster, hence the name “blister pearl” is so appropriate.
These pearls are produced when certain boring organisms (such as drill-mussels or boring polychaete worms) produce little tunnels in the shell; eventually they come in direct contact with the soft organs of the oyster, particularly with the mantle: the organ responsible for the production of the nacreous shell of these molluscs. The oyster then uses its mantle to “defend” itself against the damage caused by these organisms.
If these “blisters” reach a good size, have a nice shape and have some beauty, they are then processed (cut from the shell) and then set unto jewelry. Thus, this type of pearl would be the easiest to produce, if ever a person attempted to produce them, both experimentally or commercially.
The First Cultured Blister Pearls
The origin of the first cultured blister pearls emerges from ancient China. That’s right, something like 13 centuries ago (from the V to IX century), when Buddhist monks managed the production of what for many was simply “a miracle” or “a kind of magic”. But to understand this “miracle” we also have to understand the situation of China-and its monks and population- at that time period.
Monks that Monkey Around
As with other monks of the time, these Buddhist monks lived in monasteries, were they practiced the contemplation of nature, meditated and, generally speaking, we can say that many enjoyed a lot of “free time”. Some of the monks may have noticed that in their ponds, where they practiced the cultivation of fish, some pearly mussels also developed, and one thing led to another: they found a way of introducing small lead figurines inside these mussels, and attached these between the shell and mollusk’s mantle; eventually, these little metal figurines were coated with nacre and had the shapes seen in the next image: little “Pearl Buddhas” (image taken from this site).
And what use did these mini-Buddhas served? Well, for many things including:
Religious Propaganda: little has changed over time and even less so among some religions that use some “miracles” to keep their “flocks” or to obtain new followers. A vast majority of the people of the ancient world believed that pearls were of divine origin, so that only a god or powerful spirit being (such as an angel) could produce them. If I happen to have a shell with small pearls with the shape of Buddha, well I’m showing that he has the power to produce pearls in his own image… clearly divine!
Payment of Taxes: Probably more important than the divine origin of the pearls is their use for the payment of taxes. And in feudal China (exactly during that time period) pearls could be used to pay your taxes. We all know there are two things that are truly certain in Life: Death & taxes. This was very convenient.
To Create Jewelry: Perhaps this was also a reason to produce them, but from the quality of the pieces I have seen (mainly in low quality) I don’t believe it. They must have been used mainly to adorn temples (many fine examples can be seen in temples in China today).
But many centuries had to pass… until the 19th century, for the commercial culture and production of the Mabe Pearl. We’ll discuss this in a future entry.
Until next time!
Kicking off with this entry, I’ll start talking about the legend of the Yaqui pearl diver whose name has been all but forgotten and who is now only remembered for his nickname “El Mechudo” or “The Long Haired One”. My previous post contained a small fragment of this legend, as was heard and reported by Fernando Jordan in his book “The Other Mexico” (1967). But today’s audiences may not understand what the story is all about, being so brief and abridged, so I’ll start by first explaining this issue of “the Virgin”… why were the pearl fishermen relieved when they found “the Virgin’s pearl”?
The Virgin of Pearls
The virgin which is referred to in this legend is no other than the “Madonna of Loreto”, which is still inside the temple of the town that was once the capital of the territory of “The Californias” from 1697 to 1777: Loreto . September 8th marks the day of the “patron saint” of Loreto, when the worshipers of this figure walk the streets in a religious procession, carrying the image. This depiction of the virgin Mary and infant Jesus was brought to Mexico on the bequest of Father Francisco Eusebio Kino himself, although some sources state that it was not father Kino who carried it into the Baja California, but the Jesuit Salvatierra in the year 1667.
Here’s a picture of the “Virgin of Loreto” (which I got from this webpage: http://francona.com/travels/mexico/cortez.html ).
Just as it was required to pay the “Quinto Real” or “King’s Fifth” (a special tax, typical of feudal Spain’s colonialism in Mexico) when fishing a pearl oyster bed or a in a mining operation or when a “treasure” was discovered; in those days, the pearl fishermen and pearl armada owners would offer up a pearl to the Virgin of Loreto out of the pearls they extracted in a given day (some references cite a pearl for every 10 pearls or 10%, which is equivalent to the traditional “tithe“). In this way, fishermen would have the “blessing” of their “patron saint” and they would have a good pearling season.
Now that we can understand the reference to the “Pearl of the Virgin” within this story’s frame, we can continue to examine other aspects of the legend, such as that of the “Perla del Diablo” or “Satan’s Pearl”, but that will in a future post.
The Mantle of the Virgin of Loreto
Perhaps more famous than the “Maddona of Loreto” herself, is the mantle that she does not have anymore. One of the many thefts of sacred art that have been perpetuated in Mexico (see the entry on “The Virgin’s Pearl”) and many other Latin American countries… but in this case the thieves did not steal the image’s clothing (being just plain textile) but they focused only in its “mantle“, a type of cape that protected the image and on which the wives of the pearl fishermen would sew the pearls offered up as tribute.
Suffice it to say that after decades of adding up pearls to this mantle, it was quite a treasure and thus attracted the attention of thieves; neither the thieves nor the mantle were ever found…
It is interesting to examine historical records and find out that such thefts have been all too common in Mexico and even with several images of the “Virgin of Loreto”: many of these religious images have been stripped of their jewelry and clothing (this link will download a PDF file containing the theft of many religious images throughout Mexico and through the ages). However, I could not find a single reference to this particular theft, and I have been unable to find some of my original sources in our “arcane” (paper) library.
In my next blog-entry I will start by comparing two versions of the “Legend of El Mechudo” and will offer up additional details and I will even propose my version of the tragic events of this great regional legend, but -of course- it will be covered with technical details that I’m sure will be of your interest.
Until next time!
A recurring image I have had in my mind for the last couple of months is that of a drowned man floating in the sea. Grim dream, to say the least. And in connection with this dream, just a few weeks ago I was looking for information on the Smithsonian Museum (will tell the reason in aun upcoming entry) and there I found this photo of a sculpture of one Benjamin Paul Akers, called "The Dead Pearl Diver" and I felt like it was time to talk about the pearl fisheries in Mexico’s Northwestern region and give my try at the legends of the Yaqui pearl divers, including the famous legend of "El Mechudo" (or “The Long Haired One”), which I once wrote about in our official website.
But before touching the subject of legends and myths, let us first talk about facts.
The pearl fisheries in Baja California Sur and Sonora
The Pearl fisheries in Northwestern Mexico depended mainly on the use of Yaqui pearl divers, a native nation of Sonora. At the time when the legend of "El Mechudo" appears into history, many Yaqui were had rebelled against the governments of Sonora and Mexico. The President of Mexico, General Porfirio Diaz – ordered the arrest of all rebellious Yaquis and had them sent off to work at the haciendas of the far off State of Yucatan … and hence comes the name of this sector within the City of Guaymas, Sonora, known as "la Yucatan": this was once a “prisoner camp”, from which the yaqui were sent to Yucatan. This dark period of our regional and national history is known as the "Guerra del Yaqui". Many Yaquis were sent to work for the owners of the pearl fishing fleets of Sonora and Baja California Sur. We are therefore in the period that marks the end of the 19th century and the beginning of 20th.
In those years, the pearl fishery was an important part of the economy of Baja California Sur but was somewhat less for Sonora (which was already had a more diversified economy), but most of the revenue ended up benefiting a few families: that of the shipowners. The divers obtained work, a roof in a barrack and a few meals, and a very dangerous work environment.
In this situation, it is easy to understand the great enmity that existed between these two groups of Mexicans: the "white" or "Yoris" and the Yaquis . This created for a tense working releationship: how could the men in charge of the fishing crews (usually a “Yori”) give his men (Yaqui) knives for the extraction of the pearl oysters? The knives could easily have been used to cut their hearts out!
But, how could the Yaqui divers protect themselves from the attack of the fearsome sharks?!?! Some sources mention that divers were armed with a sort of "wooden stick" (a stave, which could have also been used to kill a person in true Van Helsing fashion); other authors state that the death of divers due to shark attacks was overrated, so it is very likely that in many occassions divers did not employ any defensive device, altough Vicente Calvo mentions several of the dangers afflicting the pearl divers of Sonora in the 1840′s:
… But the Manta-rays, would quickly throw themselves over them (the divers), and would compress them against the bottom and then they would drown within minutes.
Being truthful: I do not think the latter is possible. I have never seen or heard of a Manta-ray performing this type of maneuver; but if a diver actually believed that his death could happen if attacked by one of these fish, then he might go into a "panic attack" and end up drowning due to his own fears.
Pearl Fishing was carried out from a "mothership" from which descended several small boats, each with 2 to 4 men, and thus they managed to cover most of a fishing area of a "pearl bed”. Divers dressed only with a loincloth, and would throw themselves from the boat, some helped with primitive weigh-stones to help them quickly reach the bottom. We can watch this activity when watching the classic Mexican film "La Perla", if you don’t have access to the movie you can also watch this short video that contains a few segments of the movie (watch the action at around 1 minute & 25 seconds):
The divers descended to depths between 2 and 26 meters ( 6-86 feet) to find their catch of pearl oysters. Sometimes the physical exhaustion caused by continuous fishing (they dived for up to 6 hours daily) and lack of drinking water and food (did you perhaps believe that divers received an adequate nutrition?) caused some to lose consciousness and drown.
Again we have the description of Vicente Calvo on the pearl fishery of Sonora (and I place emphasis here, as many people believe still that only Baja California had a major pearl fishery):
Fishing starts in June and ends in October, using two or three boats from 40 to 60 tons each. In early November, these boats begin to arrive at the Port of Guaymas… the average time spent by the diver underwater is of one and a half minutes, but in such a short dive-time each divers collects many oysters.
Pearl fishing in the Sonoran coast began when the waters warmed enough and stopped when it is cooled off. The Gulf of California is a sub-tropical sea, so we have ample temperature differences between summer (with 32/90 degrees Celsius/Fahrenheit on the surface) and during winter we have recorded up to 12/53 degrees Celsius/Fahrenheit here in Bacochibampo Bay). Unfortunately, this pearl fishing period also coincided with the breeding season of the "Panamic Black-lip Pearl Oyster" (Pinctada mazatlanica), so that the effects of fishing were doubly harmful to the populations of this particular pearl oyster.
Another interesting description of Vicente Calvo states that:
All divers feel -at the beginning of each task- how blood flows from their noses, and they see this as a good sign, and will continue –happier- with their work, which lasts no more than six hours.
And this brings us to another reference to the hardships associated with fishing for pearls, but this time by an British Lieutenant by the name Robert William Hale Hardy, who in the 1820’s visited various spots within the of Sea of Cortez -including Guaymas- and he even dived for pearls at the bay of Mulege, and so he states about this occassion:
…I felt myself gliding through the slippery water, which, from its density, gave one the idea of swimming through a thick jelly; again I experienced the same change of temperature in the water as I descended; and again the agonizing sensation in my ears and eyes made me waver. But now, reason and resolution urged me on, although every instant the pain increased as I descended; and at the depth of six or seven fathoms, I felt a sensation in my ears like that produced by the explosion of a gun; at the same moment l lost all sense of pain, and afterwards reached the bottom, which I explored with a facility which I had thought unattainable.
…I no sooner found myself on the surface than I became sensible of what had happened to my ears, eyes, and mouth; I was literally bleeding from each of these, though wholly unconscious of it. But now was the greatest danger in diving, as the sharks, mantas, and tintereros, have an astonishingly quick scent for blood.
R.W.H. Hardy. Travels into the Interior of Mexico in 1825,1826,1827 and 1828.
This was really a risky profession in many ways, and divers would find their lives shortened and their health compromised… in the above cases we can see that the diver’s body is subject to a bleeding nose and the bursting of their eardrums…or even being drowned or devoured.
The Legend of "El Mechudo"
This is probably one of my favorite stories or legends which references to the pearl fisheries in our area, and it’s a very Mexican –and Sonoran and Lower Californian- legend. This story has been described in several other sources, including the blog of my friend Benjamin Arredondo, author of one of my favorite blogs "El Bable". However, I think there are things that should be reconsidered within this legend and then reinterpreted so that it has more shades of reality… and what do I mean by this? There are certain details that make the story quite unrealistic at some points, but by re-focusing these it can turned into a real story.
Well, so far I’ve written a lot about the fisheries… and nothing of the legend. So, this is waht author Fernando Jordan mentions about a site near La Paz known as "Punta El Mechudo" (“Long-Haired One Point”):
Southwest of San Jose Island and 12 km from ‘Amortajada bay’ and at the end of last century (19th) there existed a pearl bed that was a good producer of pearls, and on which hundreds of divers gathered every year. At the end of each season, before the cold north winds made diving impossible, the fishermen would prepare to take one last dive to offer a pearl to the Virgin’. On one occasion a diver was preparing to jump into the sea for the last time, when someone warned him from attempting it, he shouted:
‘No more do you need to dive. We already have the pearl of the Virgin’
The fisherman, made a gesture of disdain, and replied scornfully:
‘I am not going after the pearl of the Virgin, I’ll get one for the devil.
And he jumped into the water.
Satan took him to the sea-floor, and the fisherman did not reappear nor did the sea return his body. This place is now taboo, and no one goes there to look for pearls. Those who have, state that they found -at the very bottom- the blaspheming diver’s ghost, who has grown long hair and a huge beard and a long tongue. It seems alive, and in his hands it holds a huge mother-of-pearl shell. It is the ‘pearl of the devil’ they say, and because of the long-haired ghost the place has been given the name ‘El Mechudo’.
Fernando Jordan “El Otro México”, 1967
This is –if it can be called this way- the “official version” of the legend, and as you’ve read, it is also known as the "Legend of the Devil’s Pearl". In the next blog entries I will begin to “break down” this legend, and will hopefully come up with an alternative ending for the legend, but the next entry deals with this issue of the “Virgin’s Pearl”.
Until next time!
I Finally I have the data from this year’s pearl harvest and it is a positive report but not a spectacular one. As it has happened for several ongoing years, environmental changes -possibly caused by global warming and other natural processes- have directly affected the outcome of our pearl harvest. This year was no exception since 4 years ago we had a very poor “spat collecting” season of "Rainbow Lipped Pearl Oysters" (Pteria sterna), which did not allow us to have an adequate amount of mature (2 year old) pearl oysters to “nucleate” or “implant” two years ago (2009) and the amount of pearls we obtained was of only 1.7 kg when our goal is to reach 4 kilos (roughly: 4,000 pearls)
However, the number of nucleated oysters would have given us only 1 kilo of pearls this year, but thanks to improvements in our nucleation technique we were able to achieve a 70% higher amount of pearls, and the colors and quality of the pearls were truly good. I will now proceed to to review each type of pearl produced this year in our Bacochibampo Bay Pearl Farm… We harvested 1,783 cultured pearls with an average size of 9.0 mm (in diameter), the smaller size of the pearls was 8.3 mm and was larger at 12.9 mm. The predominant shapes were baroque (asymmetrical), followed by semi-baroque pearls (symmetric) and with a small minority (2%) of round and near-round shapes. In the next photo we can see the two plastic bags on which the entire 2011 crop is placed until the time comes for its separation by size, shape and quality (pearl grading). I proceeded to "liberate" the pearls to appreciate their shapes, colors and sizes… And these from bag # 2… I also “cherry picked” some pearls that had something that made them all the more strikingly beautiful or unusual and these are some pictures of these pearls: However, these are not the only beautiful pearls, their colors are just much more intense, but these are other rare gems: Now for the next sub-topic within the crop: the production of Mabe Pearls or “Half-Pearls”. This kind of pearl is “harvested” (extracted) from the shell of the oysters and -unlike loose pearls- they must be processed before being sold. In fact, this entire process is quite elaborate and I want to explain it in detail in a future Blog entry. I hope I can do this by September, as I am preparing a video of the process as well. Since I am going to explain this in the near future, I will avoid going into much detail, but each pearl oyster has the potential to produce up to 3 Mabe(some rare ones up to 4), but we consider that only 50% of the extracted Mabe pearls will have the right quality to become a "Cortez Mabe"; what about the remaining pearls?… they will visit the mermaids (cast into the water’s depths). Why? Because we will simply not sell "junk pearls" to our customers and our pearls are guaranteed for life: we just don’t want people coming back to exchange a defective product, we want them to come back for more beautiful & enduring gems. How many Mabe pearls did we harvest this year? According to harvest data we obtained 6,158 “raw” (or “in the shell”) pearls… from which we will further inspect and will end up with only 3,000 pieces of varying qualities: from "B" to "AAA" grades, and possibly some 6 “U” grade Mabe pearls. Once mounted in jewelry, mabe pearls take on a completely different look … The natural pearl harvest this year was quite low, barely reaching 3 pearls with a size of at least 5 mm in diameter. This is a good number, considering that the norm in nature is of just 1 such natural pearl per every 10,000 pearl oysters. Keshi pearls -a type of cultured pearl- were also very scarce, with an output of just 33 grams. I hereby terminate this report of the Cortez Pearl Harvest of 2011. The next blog post will be up by mid-September and will have information about the third edition of the "Pearl Ruckus" organized by Jeremy Shepperd (of “Pearl-Paradise.com” fame) which took place in Hollywood, California.
These are from bag # 1…
Keshi Pearls and Natural Pearls
Until next time!
However, the number of nucleated oysters would have given us only 1 kilo of pearls this year, but thanks to improvements in our nucleation technique we were able to achieve a 70% higher amount of pearls, and the colors and quality of the pearls were truly good.
I will now proceed to to review each type of pearl produced this year in our Bacochibampo Bay Pearl Farm…
We harvested 1,783 cultured pearls with an average size of 9.0 mm (in diameter), the smaller size of the pearls was 8.3 mm and was larger at 12.9 mm. The predominant shapes were baroque (asymmetrical), followed by semi-baroque pearls (symmetric) and with a small minority (2%) of round and near-round shapes.
In the next photo we can see the two plastic bags on which the entire 2011 crop is placed until the time comes for its separation by size, shape and quality (pearl grading).
I proceeded to "liberate" the pearls to appreciate their shapes, colors and sizes…
And these from bag # 2… I also “cherry picked” some pearls that had something that made them all the more strikingly beautiful or unusual and these are some pictures of these pearls:
However, these are not the only beautiful pearls, their colors are just much more intense, but these are other rare gems:
Now for the next sub-topic within the crop: the production of Mabe Pearls or “Half-Pearls”.
This kind of pearl is “harvested” (extracted) from the shell of the oysters and -unlike loose pearls- they must be processed before being sold. In fact, this entire process is quite elaborate and I want to explain it in detail in a future Blog entry. I hope I can do this by September, as I am preparing a video of the process as well.
Since I am going to explain this in the near future, I will avoid going into much detail, but each pearl oyster has the potential to produce up to 3 Mabe(some rare ones up to 4), but we consider that only 50% of the extracted Mabe pearls will have the right quality to become a "Cortez Mabe"; what about the remaining pearls?… they will visit the mermaids (cast into the water’s depths). Why? Because we will simply not sell "junk pearls" to our customers and our pearls are guaranteed for life: we just don’t want people coming back to exchange a defective product, we want them to come back for more beautiful & enduring gems.
How many Mabe pearls did we harvest this year? According to harvest data we obtained 6,158 “raw” (or “in the shell”) pearls… from which we will further inspect and will end up with only 3,000 pieces of varying qualities: from "B" to "AAA" grades, and possibly some 6 “U” grade Mabe pearls.
Once mounted in jewelry, mabe pearls take on a completely different look …
The natural pearl harvest this year was quite low, barely reaching 3 pearls with a size of at least 5 mm in diameter. This is a good number, considering that the norm in nature is of just 1 such natural pearl per every 10,000 pearl oysters.
Keshi pearls -a type of cultured pearl- were also very scarce, with an output of just 33 grams.
I hereby terminate this report of the Cortez Pearl Harvest of 2011.
The next blog post will be up by mid-September and will have information about the third edition of the "Pearl Ruckus" organized by Jeremy Shepperd (of “Pearl-Paradise.com” fame) which took place in Hollywood, California.
On December, 2010, we had an unexpected visitor to our farm: Richard D. Fisher, author of some of my favorite books about Mexico’s Copper Canyon and the Sea of Cortez, such as: “National Parks of Northwest Mexico”, and his latest “Copper Canyon: Chihuahua, Mexico”. Not only is the information on the books interesting and quite accurate, but they also have valuable historical, geological and ethnographic information and EXCELLENT PHOTOS. So, you may imagine my surprise when I met Richard in a Bus Tour group from our friends at “A Closer Look Tours”…I was honored to take the whole group to a complete tour of our pearl farm and –as usual- answer our visitor’s questions regarding the subject of pearls (one of these days I will write a Blog-post with the most common and interesting questions we’ve been asked), and guess who asked one of the “best questions” we’ve been asked over the years? Yes, it was Richard D. Fisher indeed, and the question was: “Did the Japanese really Poison the Sea of Cortez’s Pearl Beds in the 1940’s???”
Let us ponder on this story, so let us go back to the early years of the 20th Century…
From 1900 to 1920:
In those days, the Mexican Pearl Fisheries were still quite active throughout the Gulf of California, but mainly around the Southern tip of the Lower California peninsula (Baja California Sur), with La Paz acting as the main pearl trade-hub. Skin divers were still very much active in the fisheries, but after several hundreds of years of “pearling”, the pearl beds had become less plentiful, thus a new breed of diver was needed: the Helmeted Diver. And these were few in numbers but could work for hours and could go deeper than the typical skin diver, thus it was possible to find larger –older- oysters in deeper waters and fetch some larger pearls.
At the same moment, Dr. Gastón Vivés had his farm up and running quite successfully until 1914 when it was destroyed by the “Constitutionalist Army” during the Mexican Revolution. And from this moment on, the only pearls that could be obtained from these waters were the 100% natural pearls from wild-caught oysters (as opposed to the natural pearls from farm-raised oysters from Dr. Vivés’ black lip farm). And you may imagine that during a civil war people become even more impoverished and will have to resort to sacking their most valuable natural resources in order to obtain funds to sustain them…and this is what probably happened to the pearl beds in the area once the “Pearling Companies” (mostly Mexican, but some even from Great Britain and other parts of Europe) stopped their operations during and after the Revolution.
From 1921 to 1940:
This is a particularly bleak period for the pearl fisheries. The beds on the Baja California side had become commercially exhausted (meaning: no sense in fishing them anymore), but had time to “revive” on the mainland side (mainly in Sonora and Sinaloa). A couple of areas were particularly good “placeres” (name given to places were a given resource is abundant): the waters in front of Caborca and those around “Isla Tiburón”, were the fishery was conducted by the Seri Indian Nation. But in any case, the pearls were on the brink of becoming a legend…then, complete disaster struck the area: in 1939 a “mysterious disease” was traveling from the northern part of the Gulf of California, moving southwards and killing every single black lipped pearl oyster, leaving just empty shells which were identified by the local fishermen due to their silvery shine…
By 1940 the few remaining pearl beds in the Gulf had been decimated and the Cortez Pearl became the newest addition to the vast collection of Mexican fables, stories, myths and legends.
The Japanese Conspiracy Theory
In the late 1930’s most Mexican people were not really thinking of the future “space race” nor with “little green men” and had little interest in such “conspiracy theories”…but this does not mean that our fishermen lacked from imagination nor ideas. They actually began to wonder what some boats with “rising sun” flags and men from a different language and race were doing inside their Gulf…and these men seemed quite suspicious: they anchored here and dropped little devices into the water, retrieved them and then moved to another spot and repeated the process and, yet, they never seemed to fish anything! Also, instead of the friendly exchange of products (cigars, gas, bait, etc.) that they seemed to enjoy with other fishermen –regardless of nationality- these guys were overly serious and would not trade a thing!!! They must be up to some mischief indeed!!!
Back in 1939, many Mexican fishermen still remembered the importance of their pearl fisheries and considered the local pearl oysters as a useful food & shell resource that might reward them with a very valuable gem…if they were truly lucky. Some people had heard that the Japanese had begun producing cultured pearls and that they seemed to be unparalleled in their ability to produce them; still, many believed that cultured pearls were no match to the “real thing” (the natural pearl) and that Mexico would once again become a major league player in the World’s pearl markets.
So, add ingredient #1 (the presence of “tricksy” Japanese in the Gulf) and ingredient #2 (the Return of the Mexican Pearl) and you basically have created a plot, a Japanese conspiracy to POISON the Sea of Cortez and destroy any possible rival for the Japanese Cultured Pearl: the Japanese vessels were dropping poison into the pearl beds to kill their opponent before it had a chance to get back on its feet. And you wouldn’t believe how many people heard of this plot, and how many talk about it as a certifiable truth: people from Guaymas, from La Paz, from Hermosillo, from Mexico City…everyone!
Now, is there any truth in this plot? Could the Japanese have really killed off the pearl beds?
The Facts and the Myths
It is a fact that many Japanese vessels with Japanese men were in the Sea of Cortez in the late 1930’s, and they were definitively up to something, but it is highly unlikely they were sent on a mission to kill pearl oysters. Why? Because with the technology available in those days it is very unlikely they could have possessed a toxin or poison made specially to kill pearl oysters…any other poison must have killed other creatures as well: all sorts of clams, snails and maybe even fish that the fishermen would have noticed. But no it did not. Even today (2011) I am not aware of a toxin that will only kill pearl oysters…and I hope it is never invented!
So, what were the Japanese doing here if not killing oysters?!?! Well, check your timeline and you will notice that the “Pacific War” officially begun in December 17th, 1941 and Japan went into war with the United States of America, Mexico’s northern neighbor. So, could it be possible that the Japanese were taking depth measurements of areas in the Sea of Cortez??? Could they possibly have planned an attack into U.S. soil from Mexico in order to avoid the heavily defended California coast??? It does sound as a possibility…doesn’t it? Unfourtunately I don’t have any information on this subject…so let us hope that Wikileaks will produce these in a couple of years.
What caused the Mass Mortalities???
This is also an interesting subject. The “official” explanation given by the Mexican Government was that it had been caused by an unknown epidemic (epizootic disease), but they never gave any scientific proof to the fact or they just wanted an easy explanation to what seemed to be a lost cause, because from that moment on (1939) the Pearl Fishery was considered officially closed and a fishing ban was imposed on the capture or fishery of the Mexican Black Lipped Pearl Oyster (Pinctada mazatlanica).
But there were other interesting things happening at the same time, such as…the operation of the United States’ great “Hoover Dam”. Let me place a quote from Wikipedia’s here to further explain:
The changes in water use caused by Hoover Dam’s construction has had a large impact on the Colorado River Delta. The construction of the dam has been credited as causing the decline of this estuarine ecosystem. For six years, after the construction of the dam and while Lake Mead filled, virtually no water reached the mouth of the river. The delta’s estuary, which once had a freshwater-saltwater mixing zone stretching 40 miles (64 km) south of the river’s mouth, was turned into an inverse estuary where the level of salinity was higher close to the river’s mouth.
The Colorado River had experienced natural flooding before the construction of the Hoover Dam. The dam eliminated the natural flooding, which imperiled many species adapted to the flooding, including both plants and animals. The construction of the dam decimated the populations of native fish in the river downstream from the dam. Four species of fish native to the Colorado River, the Bonytail chub, Colorado pikeminnow, Humpback chub, and Razorback sucker, are currently listed as endangered.
If “Hoover Dam” began operating in 1936 and it is known that 6 years later (1942) there was no more fresh-water flowing unto the Gulf of California, then we can begin to imagine the environmental consequences. The “Colorado River” had its waters discharging into the Gulf for millions of years and then…kaput! No more water for you! So, what are the possible consequences: the impact was felt almost immediately on the Gulf’s northern region and its wetlands, but the effect had to creep down as the lack of freshwater made the Gulf of California “saltier” (the “average” salinity of the world’s ocean is 3.5%, with that of the Sea of Cortez being almost 3.6%) and a higher salinity level usually means less dissolved oxygen (which marine animals will use to breathe from the water). Besides this fact we can imagine that many other substances came with the river’s waters, including silt and many minerals…all these possibly very important to sustain a variety of marine plants and microscopic algae, creatures that are considered the basis of most marine ecosystems.
You may say “but the river’s water stopped flowing in 1942 and the oysters died in 1939!!!”, and yes…that is a fact, but the fact remains that there was less water available each year since the dam’s inauguration and by 1939 this was already causing havoc on our local ecosystems.
Have we finally pinpointed the truth to this dire plot or conspiracy theory? Not at all. I believe that there is still much to be done to reach this point, but a possibility would be that we could have indeed had a negative effect from “Hoover Dam” and this combined with the overfishing of the pearl beds and maybe we even had an epidemic or –just to make matters worse- an unknown environmental change. In any case: the Japanese are not to blame. They did not poison the Sea of Cortez to kill off a potential commercial threat.
I would also like to point out that I am in no way now blaming the American people for this disaster (we played our own part in this tragedy), and in those days (1930’s) few people knew or cared or understood how significant something like this truly was. Even now, few Nations are willing to consider Nature as a “User” of a given natural resource. In the meantime, we might speculate that our pearl oysters have had time to adapt to their “new” environment and –if given the opportunity- they will be able to repopulate our waters once more.
Here we are back again with this topic that I find increasingly interesting, due in part because I have used it as a form of catharsis, allowing me to remember one of the reasons why we started a Pearl Aquaculture project -some 17 years ago- when we were still students at the Guaymas Campus of the Tec de Monterrey. In those days, we first wanted to understand the reasons or logic surrounding the origin of natural pearls and how they are created within the pearl oysters and -of course- there was this previous “knowledge” about the origin of pearls: the mystical, magical, whimsical and musical “grain of sand theory“, which is really just another “pearl myth”.
Another Myth that Afflicts Humanity
It seems that regardless of the time period or place, this sand-grain-to-pearl myth has become very popular: it can be heard almost in any country and language. In my case my grandmother told me, when I was just a child, that pearls grew in an oyster as a result of an irritation caused by a grain of sand, so that there was no better choice for the little animal than to coat the painful and offensive particle with soft layers of nacre. I, of course, assimilated this important information and used it wherever there was an opportunity –and there were not many I must admit- until it came time to put this theory to the test.
Back in 1991, our select group of friends – including Mauricio Atl Tahuilan, Carlos Navarro Serment and Jesús Gutiérrez – had helped us to collect some 70 Pearl oysters to start off our studies on Pearl oyster reproduction and culture. Most of the oysters collected were “Black Lips” (Pinctada mazatlanica) and only a few specimens were “Rainbow Lips” (Pteria sterna), so we use some of these few animals for a very simple experiment: use sand to produce natural pearls. And the result was simply disappointing: we did not obtain a single Pearl. Zero. Zilch. Nothing. Nada. And there arose the question of why didn’t it work? Because we all know that a grain of sand will induce the production of a pearl…thus, a thousand grains of sand should be capable of allowing for the production of a thousand pearls and a million grains of sand …well, a million pearls!!! It was just so obvious and foolproof.
But it was not. As much sand as we used, we could not produce pearls. Not a single one. On the other hand, when we took a peek inside our oysters we noticed that the oysters were perfectly clean, without a trace of sand. We could not know -for real- what really happened in those days because we simply did not have the time to sit there -in front of an oyster- for some 24 straight hours. Can you imagine yourself sitting, just watching an animal that -for some people- is as interesting as a rock??? Therefore, we came up with conjectures and hypotheses, but we never quite knew what was truly happening; anyway, we were “satisfied” with our guesses. Many years have passed now since those days, and the technology to help us is now available –and is also inexpensive- to perform these small experiments…and, of course, for the “birth” of this Blog to have the motivation to write and document the experiments.
We used a small fish tank with clean seawater to introduce two “Rainbow Lipped oysters” into which we had –previously- introduce one and a half tablespoons of sand. We placed a small video camera to take a time-lapse video for the next 18 hours to record what happens to an oyster which has sand inside. The results did not astonish us, and lived up to our expectations.
After 3 hours in the tank, oysters would quickly open and close their valves, in a movement and launched a “cloud” of sand out of their bodies. This action removed a great proportion of sand from their bodies, but for the next 8 hours the oysters continued to, slowly, releases small “sand packets”. These “sand packets” consist of a sticky mucus that the oyster secretes in order to “bind” or adhere the sand, and thus it is more easy for them to remove the annoying particles. By next morning, the oysters were almost perfectly clean.
While – at first view – the oysters seemed to be clean from sand (we could see the most of the sand laying at the bottom of the tank) an oyster was sacrificed in order to inspect its body thoroughly, and we still managed to find a very small amount of sand inside. Under natural conditions, the oyster would have managed to remove all remaining sand in some additional hours, but here it was necessary to see the “mucus in action”: our video displays how the Oyster uses its mucus to catch some sand particles and helps to eliminate them.
Pearl oysters are perfectly adapted to their natural environment – the ocean – which has an inexhaustible source of sand. Because of this perfect adaptation, these lowly creatures can – very easily – remove every single annoying grain of sand from their bodies; thus, we can discard sand as being able to help produce natural pearls. In my opinion this is highly unlikely.
Thus, we hope that with the information generated by this test and the proofs on video we will help –once and for all- eliminate the false myth of the “grain of sand”. We hope that this myth will not become resurrected –a zombie of its former self- and come back to haunt us in the future… I swear that if I have to listen –once more- the question of “Is it not a grain of sand that makes the pearl?” something very, very bad, will happen …. I’m just joking: I have already been seared in the flesh –and mind and soul- with this question for years and years, so I am certain I will be able to sustain it longer (but try not to put me to the test, please).
A Blister Pearl!
While inspecting the oyster that was sacrificed for the “grain of sand experiment” I found a worm-like mud-blister pearl. Since our last blog-episode was about these pearls, and I already had the camera rigged it was just natural to make this information available for you all. So, I simply used a scalpel to break the mother-of-pearl layer on this “small tunnel” and found a small orange colored worm. It was clearly a drill-worm (genus Polydora). This discovery can be seen in the video as well.
This Blog will continue to have more information of interest to you, but probably this information will become a little more “spaced” in time, since our farming activities become intensified during the winter season and we usually spend more time at the farm than at the office (where I write the Blog).
So please do not despair, I promise more posts in the near future and do continue to visit our Blog and send your comments and suggestions.