Archive for the 'Pearls Myths: Uncovering the Truth' Category
And here we are back in the saddle and readying to continue with the Ultraviolet light test series. Since there are many varieties of pearls to compare I have chosen to separate them into groups based mainly on their COLOR. And why do it this way? because it just seems so simple and obvious, and although many people will say there is not much in common between an Australian South Seas Pearl (SSP for short) and a Chinese Freshwater pearl (CFWP, also for short) –I mean, the differences are jarring: SSP are produced in the sea with a Pinctada maxima pearl oyster, and most CFWP are grown in rivers/lakes/ponds with Unionidae pearly mussels- they have a very similar color and overall look.
Still, each group will have its own sub-group for analysis and comparisons, so as not to cause much discomfort among those that prefer to keep their apples apart from their oranges. So, shall we jump into the tests?
White Pearl Group: Akoya, SSP and CFWP
In this group I decided to include the most common pearls in the World, just with CFWP and the saltwater Akoya pearls you can say you’re reaching well over 95% of the World’s production of cultured pearls. White South Sea Pearls (SSP), which include Australian and Indonesian productions, are far less abundant and larger-sized than its counterparts, but their color is very similar in a silvery white variation. Let us place these pearls next to each other and compare their look:
The similarities in the overall look of the pearls is more than evident, but on close inspection there are subtleties that are revealed: pearls are not like other gemstones and we should not expect sharp, dramatic differences but their beauty is more in the realm of “the little things”. Some can be revealed by close inspection with a loupe/triplet, using a special background and light situation or by immersing them in water (The Water Test). On the photo above you may notice that the pearl on the left (an Akoya Pearl, sometimes called “Mikimoto” or “Japanese” Pearl) has some interesting “stripes” (faint ones, these are the stripes you can see in the mother-of-pearl nucleus; you can see these due to this pearl’s thin nacre coating), that the middle pearl (a Chinese freshwater pearl) has a yellowish-pink tint and the one on the right (an Australian South Sea Pearl) has a greenish tint to it. Some of these features are due to the LED lamp I used to shoot the photos, but they are not as evident in a normal light situation. Anyway, I employed the same light (and distance from it to the pearls) for all this study, so all pearls are subject to the same treatment.
So, how will these pearls react to long-wave UV light exposure? Let us see and compare.
As you can see, the Akoya and Freshwater pearls (left & middle) have a remarkably similar glow (pure white-blue) and the South Seas one (right) has a greenish-blue cast to it. One thing we have to keep in mind for he rest of this series is that every UV lamp, background setting (I recommend a black cloth) and ambience light (a darkened room is best), you employ can affect the results so you may see something different from these results. Finally, these are photos and our eyes are better at capturing the glow/fluorescence effect.
I used 3 different Akoya pearls now to see additional results on this group. I had a very white Akoya, a cream-beige (“golden”) Akoya and a “black Akoya” (irradiated) pearls for this group. Results were quite interesting.
On the image above you will be able to see several things, but first I want to point out the most evident one: a small Chinese Freshwater pearl (CFWP) which I call “the blank pearl” (the “PC” is to be used for Spanish as “Perla China”) and this is something I will do an all UV photos that do not include a CFWP. What for??? It will serve us to compare the standard blue-glow of the “standard pearl” with others. That is the reason you’ll see it there.
Anyway, the white Akoya has the expected color but now we see 2 interesting things: the golden Akoya has a very faint glow –almost none- and it is of an golden-orange color, whereas the “black Akoya” has no glow at all. For the most part fake/imitation pearls display no fluorescence (but I have seen some that do). What does this mean to us? That dyed pearls will not glow the way a pearl does, and that the golden-yellow pigments somehow interfere with fluorescence as well. Interesting isn’t it???
In this instance I have some traditional freshwater pearls for inspection. I skipped the normal shot because they are simply unremarkable…just plain white pearls. Their glow is the one we quite expected: the beautiful blue glow.
Conclusion & Closing Remarks
White pearls glow with a beautiful blue-green glow under long-wave Ultra-Violet light, but some pearls of the “white pearl” group may not display this fluorescence, this would include some (I can’t say that all until I can check thousands of pearls) of the golden and dyed/irradiated pearls.
What have I missed? I do not have any “Blue” nor “Pink” Akoya pearls for testing, and there are many cheaply dyed freshwaters pearls that I should include in these tests too. I will, as soon as I have samples. If you care to share your personal research or to send me samples I will be more than happy to update this entry to include your personal findings. Please feel free to write to us by means of the “Comments” section.
Stay tuned for the next group: Black Pearls.
Well, we are back from Mexico City and the 2012 Edition of the “Gilberto” X-mas Bazar, it was a long and strenuous week of work but very fruitful. We hope we will be able to do next year’s edition and fortify the relationships we’ve forged this year. By the way: we did something we were NOT supposed to do (ever!) but everything was just peachy: The three of us traveled to Mexico City on the same plane, together. Period.
The thing is that we had made a promise –years ago- to avoid being together on airplane and car trips, this in order to minimize the risks of having all three of us perishing in an accident and leaving our Cortez Pearl Farm as a poor orphan…what would happen to the farm? Who could take care of our oysters? Who will seed them? Fortunately for us and for our 120 thousand smiling little oysters: we came back, safe and sound.
Anyway, I am writing a full account of the “Bazar Gilberto” event in our Spanish Edition of the Blog, but I will not re-write it in English. But if you are interested please let me know and I can surely change my mind. At present my mind is up for a re-writing of the famous “Pearl Fluorescence” video (with almost 17,000 views on YouTube), so we have new photos, more details and a much better video; I guess we are off to a good start!
What is Fluorescence? Simply put: you can see it when something emits a glow. Many minerals display this attribute, specially when exposed to Ultraviolet light (a form of radiation that is invisible to our eyes) and the way they glow –I’ll call it fluorescence from now on- can be unique and can help to distinguish from one substance/material to another. In gemology it is very useful to distinguish between real (cultured & natural) pearls and fakes/imitations.
In the case of pearls, the light you must use for this test is a Long Wave Ultraviolet lamp. Short wave lamps just don’t have what it takes to make this test work. If interested in buying one of these lamps I can recommend a fairly inexpensive LED light that can become your pearl’s delight and even your children’s favorite “camping toy” (Warning: Never, ever, allow anyone to look directly into the light!), since it can help you find scorpions at night (yes, some life forms also fluoresce!). This is both fun and scary, since on one occasion I realized we were surrounded by several dozens of these desert denizens and spent a rather sleepless night.
Anyway, you won’t be disappointed in the versatility you gain by purchasing one of these inexpensive UV lamps: you can find scorpions, mites, blood stains and even make your pearls fluoresce. Now that you are well equipped, let’s go and use the lamp!
Shine on You Crazy Pearl
I don’t really care for diamonds nor for many other gemstones… they are not “my thing”, but I can go crazy over all types of pearls (and I also enjoy all types of Opals and Amber) and this is what actually happened when I started taking some photos of pearls under long-wave UV: I went into a “Pearl under UV” frenzy… I photographed as many pearl varieties as possible under long-wave UV just to see the reaction of all these pearls to the fluorescence test. I do hope you will find the result interesting if not fascinating.
And of course, I cannot place all the results here at the same time, so I will produce several short posts with the results and a discussion, and we’ll have some less traditional pearls to test, such as: Abalone, Clam, Conch & Marine Mussel, as well as the whole array of Cultured Pearls (Akoya, Freshwater, South Seas and Tahitian blacks), Mabe Pearls, Fakes/Imitations and even some Natural pearls. Some of these pearls have very interesting reactions to long wave UV so keep posted.
In the meantime I leave you with a taste of the fun we will have with this test…a found this little critter in one of my work-boots last year. I keep him in my office as a good luck charm, and here we have him “hugging” (to the left) a freshwater pearl and to the right a Cortez Pearl.
Anyway, be safe and always look inside your boots before you wear them on!
BTW: This little Desert denizen –and the pearls- are glowing/fluorescing thanks to the use of our UV lamp.
And here I am again, adding the finishing touch on what is my version of the legend of “El Mechudo”. My story is different from all previously released versions, as it has no supernatural elements (“Satanic intervention”).
To add this new twist on the old legend, I will present the evidence used throughout this Blog’s series of “The Legend of El Mechudo”: from the place where these events unfold, to the demystification of the “claws of death” and now the “silent killer” (in this case: it is not stress). I -for one- simply cannot believe that an experienced diver was caught by a pearl oyster and then he just drowned. It takes something much more lethal than a pearl oyster to drown a proffessional pearl diver.
Therefore: if it was not the Devil himself nor a pearl oyster… What really caused the tragic death of “El Mechudo”?
As Delilah to Samson
Just as the biblical Samson, our mythical diver had a magnificent mane of hair which probably had some special meaning to him. And I have reasons to believe that his long hair was partially responsible for his untimely death. If Delilah was the one responsible for bringing about Samson’s misfortune, who was this Sonoran diver’s Delilah? Let us review a bit about the pearl oyster’s natural history to better understand what might have happened.
Habitat of the “Panamic Black-Lip Oyster”
The Black Lip Pearl Oyster -known as “Madreperla” in Mexico- is Pinctada mazatlanica, a bivalve that is found attached -by means of its byssus-to rocks, encrusting corals and other bivalves. As it was shown in the previous post’s video, it is not very difficult to detach them from their anchoring spot. As for the oyster’s habitat: I really do not percieve any danger for a long-haired diver here.
Do remember that “El Mechudo” is said to have secured his long-hair (probably with some rope or even turning his own hair into a knot), but it is not difficult to imagine it could have come loose after hours of diving. Here is where the danger truly resides.
For anyone who has dived or snorkeled in the waters of the Gulf of California, is easy to remember that there’s really nothing in the water or the sea-bed that can entangle you. Due to the lack of rivers reaching the Gulf, there are few contributions of earth-bound material such as tree branches and shrubs, and it is not easy to entangle your hair between stones, so where’s the danger? Let us analyze the next species and its habitat.
The Habitat of the “Rainbow Lip Oyster”
The “Concha Nácar” or “Rainbow Lip Oyster” (Pteria sterna) is a very special animal in regard to its “taste” for settlement. It is adapted to a wide variety of habitats: rocky and coral reefs, on top of the shell of other bivalves, forming “carpet clumps” on sandy-muddy areas and –especially- they can be found living on gorgonian -or fan- corals. Additionally, their byssus is much more stronger than that of the Black-lip pearl oysters, and it takes a lot more effort to detach them from their anchoring spot.
Final Remarks & Video
A fan coral is the “perfect trap” for a long-haired pearl diver. During the shooting of the video about this legendary character I used a doll with a “wig” (one of the most difficult things I’ve recently done: I’d rather juggle with sea urchins anytime), and everytime the fake hair was near the fan coral it would easily entangle itself, becoming a small burden to dissentangle the hair for a new video shoot.
Additionally: I have a video that shows how an oyster is unable to keep their shells closed on an object for more than just a couple of hours. The test was performed, with the help of my assistant Antonio “El Tigre” Mendoza, who helped to perform experiments -both under natural & “laboratory” conditions- and we obtained consistent results in “oyster retention”: usually of less than 60 minutes on each tryout.
The following video was produced in order to show you how the oyster releases its grip after some time. For this I used one of my son’s “GI Joe” action figure, around which we devised a floating system (to simulate the upward flotation pull of a victim) and continuous video filming was performed until the oyster released its “little victim”. As a note of interest, you will notice that there are a couple of “curious sea-hares” (Aplysia californica) that appear during the video…this might be as close as they can get to become part of a “feature film”, hence the attraction (I guess).
Thus, based on all the information we have talked about during this series of blog entries (and in the best “Clue” game fashion) I dare say the following:
“El Mechudo” dove to deeper waters to try and release a “Rainbow Lip Oyster” that was attached to a large fan coral (these larger specimens are usually found in deeper waters) but his hair became entangled. He could not use a knife to cut his hair free (because slave divers were not given such a weapon)…thus the great Yaqui diver drowned. Satan must be declared blameless.
The only way the body of this diver could have remained in the same site for days or weeks (once the body fills with gases form decomposition it would float away) is if it was firmly attached to a coral…any oyster would have released the hand of a dead diver within hours.
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!
This is a short entry but I believe it may be of value to some; this entry originates from an email I recieved just a week ago, but we’ve received this type of e-mails several times before… so I will take this opportunity to forward this information to the widest audience possible. The e-mail I recently received comes from the “old continent” and says:
I’m writing from Spain to ask you:
Some time ago I had lunch at a seafood restaurant and I found a pearl inside a clam. It’s small but roundish and pink colored. Does it have any commercial value?
Thank you and kind regards,
Interesting discovery… but to know for sure if it is of value we must first have the following information:
Was the pearl found in a cooked clam (baked, fried, steamed)? A "cooked pearl” can lose its value because it loses its beauty when damaged by heat.
The species that produced the pearl (its proper or scientific name): Most clams do not produce “true pearls” but instead produce "calcareous concretions" which have no real commercial value.
Size and weight of the “pearl”: pearls have a greater value after attaining a minimum size (5 mm) or weight (0.5 g); if the weight/size is lesser than this size-weight, then the economic value is not very significant, but: You have have found a pearl! You’re lucky: natural pearls are rare.
If the pearl is nice and large enough, you can have a jeweler incorporate it into a ring or pendant, as an "accent" for it.
Greetings from Mexico
Effect of Heat on a Pearl
All pearls have an amount of water content in their chemical composition (usually from 2 to 5%), and this water is important to maintain the integrity of the nacre in the pearl. Pearls are made of concentric layers of this nacre, which in turn is made from flat, hexagonal-shaped crystals of aragonite (a variety of calcium carbonate) which are bound or “glued” toghether by means of a special protein (conchiolin), which keep the layers of aragonite togheter.
If a pearl is overexposed to heat, it will loose some of its moisture and may fracture and may also become dull or opaque… and if any of these things happen, the pearl may lose its value (in whole or in part, depending on the degree of damage).
Most people associate the pearl as a nacreous gem, although with the massive amounts of imitation pearls (faux perles) and processed (bleached) pearls available, many people associate the pearl as a shiny white sphere (with the look of polished marble). But the fact is that pearl oysters and other mollusks with pearly shells produce pearls in the “traditional” sense: nacreous.
But there are those mollusks that do not produce a “pearly shell” and have a shell that looks more like porcelain, and these organisms are said to produce "calcareous concretions" which are basically "non-nacreous pearls". These porcelain-looking “pearls” are made primarily of calcite, another form of calcium carbonate (usually found in marble, limestone, bone, seashells and eggshells).
However, some species of mollusks are capable of producing non-nacreous pearls that have very special features, such as those from the “Lion’s Paw” scallops (Nodipecten subnudosus), various species of snails (including Strombus sp.) or the “Giant Clam” (Tridacna sp)… but these are exceedingly rare.
Thus, it is vital to know the species that produced the "pearl", and you will have an easier way to know if your pearl could have some “real value”… or if will only have a “sentimental value”. In either case you can consider yourself lucky.
Size and Weight of the Pearl
These two indicators are very important to obtain the value of a pearl. Large pearls have always been rare and therefore command a greater value, thus a pearl with size of less than 5 mm in diameter may not have a great price, while one exceeding 8 mm will have a good value. If your pearl is small, it is better to just keep it… but if it exceeds 10 mm (diameter) you may already have something of value (Note: in addition the pearl should be beautiful and not have cracks, size is not everything).
And although a pearl’s weight is related to its size in a very direct way, this is not always true; such is the case of the so called “Gas Giants”. These pearls can reach very interesting sizes (12 mm and up), but they really possess a thin layer of nacre, and inside have a kind of "organic mud", putrid and foul-smelling… not the type of pearl you want to give away or acquire. These pearls usually have a large size and display a low weight.
The Pearl’s Beauty
For us the main attributes to consider in a natural pearl are:
Physical Integrity: the pearl does not have any cracks or fractures, that its nacre is intact (undamaged).
Size and weight: that its size exceeds 6 mm in diameter and its weight corresponds to its size.
Beauty: even if you have the two previous attributes, the pearl must be beautiful. If it is not beautiful it has got to have some exceptional trait that will give it value; such as the gruesome but Huge "Pearl of Allah", or like the pearls of the Nautilus for their unusual spirals and origin.
We have to consider that the person who finds a natural pearl is very fortunate (and by this I refer not to the cultured pearls that are placed inside a farm-raised oyster/mussel, and sold in little cans) and even if their pearl may fail in one or more of these indicators, this does not mean you don’t have something special and unique!
If you’re one of the Lucky few: Enjoy your pearl! And, if you are not one of them: what are you waiting?!?! Go to your favorite seafood place and gulp down a dozen raw clams!!!
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!
Just a couple of days ago a friend of mine –he is a retired Canadian farmer- and I were discussing the way the North American “Meat Industry” (beef, poultry, pork, etc.) had become misguided by the constant search of higher volumes of production (which, somehow, equal MONEY), but this was being done at the expense of both the animals and the consumers (all of us). Kurt began by telling me about his experience when dealing with local Animal Sanitation officers, about the indiscriminate use of antibiotics on cattle and the plain lack of “common sense” on the part of those involved in the industry. He told me: “I did not inject my animals with antibiotics, but instead I offered them land on which to forage, clean straw-bedding and care. My animals never developed the infections I was told they would suffer and they fattened better than those under the strain of antibiotics”. He cared for his animals and treated them with respect. Some in the industry seem to have noticed the same thing and have reverted to “the Old way”.
Just a couple of days later we were reading an “old” article written by Shigeru Akamatsu, a person with much influence in the Pearl Industry (being Counselor of the “Japan Pearl Promotion Society”, and he started as a pearl culture researcher under Kokichi Mikimoto’s leadership) and I felt this article tied in perfectly with the talk I had with Kurt, and thus this entry got its start.
The Reasons Behind the Changes
The article “Pearl Culture and the Biological Environment” (published in “Ship & Ocean Newsletter”#8G March 5, 2004) which can be downloaded in PDF format is quite interesting because it finally approaches the decline of the Japanese Pearling Industry in a way that is finally understood: the industry as a whole has to admit its guilt. No longer is guilt being laid upon the “wrath of Nature” in the way of red tides or mysterious diseases. And although Mr. Akamatsu does not mention it this way, I could read the word “greed” on certain paragraphs…but he never mentions this sin, rather handling it in a more political way by using a term like “in the pursuit of economic efficiency”.
Mr. Akamatsu states in this article’s first paragraph:
“Japan dominated the world’s cultured pearl industry for many years, but in recent times that state of affairs is changing rapidly. Though the rapid globalization of the pearl industry can be considered as one of the reasons, the primary cause is the deterioration of pearl farms caused by the occurrence of harmful red tides and the massive mortality of Akoya pearl oysters due to an infectious disease. Such phenomena relate not only to pearl culture, but also to BSE, carp herpes, avian influenza, etc., and may be the price paid for not treating animals as living creatures, in the pursuit of economic efficiency, as well as for incessantly changing the natural environment for the expansion of production.”
When pearl culture began in the early 20th Century, the overall idea was to produce a natural pearl substitute but that would keep the attributes of the pearl: beauty and durability. Initially, pearl culturing periods were long (2-5 years) but many in the industry noticed that pearls with shorter culture periods still looked nice (1-2 years) but then they saw that most people could not tell the difference between “instant pearls” (4-8 months) and those with a longer culture periods, thus shorter pearl-growth periods became more common…and profits increased. Why would profits increase? This is something that every pearl farmer understands, but let me explain it shortly: each pearl oyster in your farm costs you money, every day.
In order to cope with mounting costs (labor, equipment & fuel) pearl farmers can use many strategies, such as:
- Increase stocking density: you grow more oysters in the space you already have.
- Decrease your Work-force: substituting manpower with machinery and equipment.
- Decrease your Pearl Culture Period: you grow your pearls in less time.
Let us talk about the implications of each of these strategies.
Growing more oysters in the same space you had may sound efficient: If you can fit 10 books in a box that once only held 7 books –thanks to a more clever way of arranging your books- then you have done this in a more efficient manner. But it is not necessarily the same with living organisms: animals –even plants- will thrive under adequate conditions, but overstocking/over-crowding will yield unhappy critters…and this brings about stress.
Imagine you live in a 10 x 10 meter room (sounds like a prison-cell, doesn’t it?) and all of your basic needs are fulfilled in this space that has a toilet, lavatory, book-case, table and chairs, bed and TV set. Now imagine you have a new guest, it may become uncomfortable but livable, but now: crowd the cell with 8 more “guests” for a total of 10 people…1 per square meter. Life becomes unbearable for all: can’t eat, can’t use the toilet nor watch TV nor reach for a book, then there’s the lack of food, stress, the smell and finally disease. Not a nice option…would it be nice for an oyster? Our mollusks don’t have brains nor conscience so they will not suffer any psychological damage, but their bodies will indeed react to overcrowding by displaying less growth (become stunted), will be less healthy and will become sick (ultimately they will die) and their pearls will lack beauty.
We can actually tell when an animal did not enjoy a healthy life when we see its shell and pearl: unhealthy oysters will have dull shells, without intense colors (the trade-mark of our “Rainbow-Lipped Oysters”) and their pearls will have dull luster and light colors. But overcrowding oysters is not the only factor that will affect their health: the environment (pollution, climate change, hurricanes) and disease (caused by parasites), but these are not under the control of a farmer. It is up to the farmer to have healthier pearl oysters by means of adequate stocking densities.
Infections are a major headache for producers: infected oysters may quickly infect their sisters & brothers under crowded conditions, and since overcrowding makes oysters weak –due to a combination of lack of food and oxygen- and parasites can easily “jump” from an oyster to many others if the distance is short.
In our case we hold our “Rainbow Lipped Oysters” under more than adequate conditions inside Bacochibampo Bay: we use less than 1% of the bay’s entire area and there are no other mollusk farms in the vicinity (the closest one is an edible oyster farm in Kino Bay, some 180 Km/112 miles away). We are making sure that our fledgling venture will not follow the same course as others, but let us see what has happened in other pearl producing countries:
The Cook Islands: here we’ll cite information about pearl-farming mortalities caused by overstocking (you can read the whole article by downloading the PDF file from the link):
“In Manihiki Lagoon, one potential stressor which may have been related to the onset of mortalities was the high stocking density. Prior to the disease outbreak the number of oysters cultured in Manihiki Lagoon was reportedly at an all-time high. In conclusion, our data suggest that an unprecedented disease outbreak in P. margaritifera [the Black-Lipped Pearl Oyster] in Manihiki lagoon in November 2000 was associated with vibriosis caused by V. harveyi [a species of Vibrio virus] and other opportunistic vibrios.”
Japan: When we began our experimental pearl farm in 1994 we heard about a “mysterious disease” that was killing the Akoya Pearl Oyster and that nothing could be done about this “viral outbreak”. The blame was laid entirely upon an “unknown virus” and you can read some of the thoughts of the time (taken from “NOVA: the Perfect Pearl”) on the following paragraph:
“Experts attribute the initial oyster deaths in 1994 to “red tide,” a bloom of microscopic, toxin-producing animals in the ocean that proved deadly to the oysters. Even after several years of scientific investigation, the specific cause of the disease remains a mystery. The illness first makes itself known when the abductor muscle, which holds the two parts of the oyster shell together, turns a reddish-brown. Ultimately, eight out of ten affected oysters die from the affliction, which so far has only affected akoya oysters. Others feel the oyster farmers themselves might be to blame. “The Japanese have always tended to place too many oysters too close together” wrote Andy Müller in the December 1996/January 1997 issue of Pearl World.”
So, in both instances we’ve seen that over-crowding –both your cages and your bays- leads to severe problems in pearl production. Why do it at all? Many reasons there are, but they are one and the same: the COST of floats, equipment (pearl culture cages), more workers (salaries), of paying for more “sea-rights”, the costs of moving away from densely packed areas into remote areas (devoid of many necessary services), but in the end they are all translated into the cost of producing pearls. If pearls kept a high value you would not need to grow billions of pearls, thus by producing more pearls the industry shot itself in the foot and a vicious cycle began to turn and churn.
Many people believe this is a major solution to a company’s problems, but we believe this is really a big mistake. Companies are nothing if they don’t have people: they are made of people and one of the purposes of any company should be the production of well-paid jobs. Making money is not bad and should be a goal of every company, but it should not be the sole goal: there is a particular pride to producing pearls and the people that help you achieve this… become your trusted allies.
Farm-wise: without workers a pearl farm would just die. Pearl farming is a work intensive operation, involving divers, aquaculture technicians, farm-workers, mechanics, surveillance guards and many other people. Loose one link and the rest will follow. And pearl farmers usually work under very specific time constraints such as: the seeding season, the spat collecting season, harvest season, etc. This means that if you DO NOT finish a certain activity ON TIME you WILL NOT BE ABLE TO FINISH IT AT ALL and will have to move to the next one, ultimately this means it is highly unproductive and foolish.
And something I really want to stress here is that pearl farming is very artisanal in Mexico: very little machinery is employed. And we want to keep it that way for several reasons which many may approve and others will disprove, and it may be one of the reasons why we ended up with the Fair Trade Gems seal of approval (the only pearl –so far- in this list is the “Cortez Pearl”): we have very few jobs in Mexico. Our economy just doesn’t work because it is fueled by our exports (mainly raw-goods such as oil, agriculture goods and metals) and our cheap labor-force (which is also “exported” to other countries) in manufacturing for offshore companies. If we purchased machinery that would allow us to avoid hiring additional workers we would be a part of the problem, not a solution…so, even if this costs us more and makes us less efficient we will continue on this path.
In a future post we’ll explain a little more about our labor strategies.
Pearl Culture Period
The longer the pearl resides inside its “mother” or “host” oyster, the bigger it becomes and the more “pearl” (nacre) it will have…but this also means you must continue to grow your pearl oysters for longer time periods. Many sources state that the pearl culturing period in Japan took between 2 to 4 years to complete, the Akoya pearl ending up with a very good coating of 0.95 mm (Ward, 1995). This good nacre coating made it possible for the pearl to look beautiful, lustrous and have the endurance –basically, to pass the test of time- that all gems should have.
But many in the pearl-industry noticed that most consumers would not be able to tell the difference between a thickly-coated pearl and one with a thin-nacre coating. Thus, a bad practice was initiated in the industry and pearl culturing periods fell to –in some cases- down to less than 6 months (with a coating of less than 0.2 mm, once again Ward, 1995 is the source). This saved farmers a lot of money in wages & cages…but, was it really worth it?
This issue was addressed quite some time ago by many in the pearl industry, but a particularly strong voice was that of the late Australian Pearl Farmer & Consultant C. Denis George, who in 1971 stated:
“The Japanese technicians are insisting that this thin cultivation [of the pearl] does not make any difference in the appearance of the pearl, but in my opinion this is beside the point and does make a lot of difference in the principles involved and their material value in dollars paid by the customer in the belief she is acquiring a pearl of value… This resulted in many losing their trust in pearls, other withdrawing from the industry or going bankrupt; and many scores of thousands of women all over the world…became bitterly disappointed when their treasure faded.” (Excerpt from “The Black Pearls: History and Development”. 1971. Lapidary Journal).
From a farmer’s perspective, there are many situations that will make you consider against having longer pearl culture periods, such as:
- Global Warming & Hurricanes
- Age of your Pearl Oysters
But regardless of these situations, a pearl farmer should have set his farm’s goal for nacre thickness and stick to it as much as possible. For instance, our pearl culturing period ranges from 18 to 24 months (after the moment the pearl oyster is operated), and this allows us to harvest pearls with an excellent nacre coating of 1.5 mm around the nucleus, although many pearls will grow over 2.0 mm of nacre, some will grow less than the 0.8 mm minimum acceptable standard. You really have to stick to this minimum culture period because you simply cannot accept anything below the 0.8 mm thickness mark…if the pearl falls below this number it has got to go down the drain (pearly gehenna: the pearls must be cast to the deep waters of the Sea of Cortez, where bacteria will recycle their materials).
Compare this to the Tahitian Pearl Ministry’s quality check for Tahitian black pearls in the year 2001:
“…the minimum nacre thickness requirement for all exported Tahitian pearls at 0.6 mm went into effect on Sept.1. The assembly voted to bump that minimum up to 0.8 mm beginning July 2002.” (“Tahitian Government to Improve Pearl Exports” by Victoria Gomelsky in Gemstone News. National Jeweler. September 2001 page 28).
This actually means that many in the pearl industry are –or were- producing pearls with a nacre thickness that is simply not adequate, and this affects those producers that are interested in keeping a high quality standard in their pearls, because –in the end- all pearls are considered as equals by many customers. Not so.
- Pearl Oysters are an important species in their local ecosystems, but too much of a good thing can ruin things for all so it is really important that you do not disrupt your environment’s carrying capacity by overwhelming it with billions of pearl oysters: healthy oysters will produce exceptional pearls.
- Keep your Local Jobs: If we were all able of making our companies thrive, then let us keep our local jobs truly local, by offering good wages and good working conditions; we might lose money by NOT having workers in other countries do the work we could on our own, but we would fuel OUR economy. If we all did our part our economy would grow and we would not have people leaving this Country for the one up north.
- Keep your Pearl Quality High: Good pearls are the first to go! Pearl buyers are always looking for the pearl of a lifetime…the pearl that will make them gasp in awe! Low quality pearls are good for trinkets or for feeding your local bacteria. Would like to finish this subject with a mention from the Bible:
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”
So, what do you think about this subject? Should producers consider the Environment as their Ally or as a “bloody nuisance”? What should you -as a pearl buyer- consider as a good trade-off? Please let me know your thoughts…in the comments area.
On our next post we’ll detail some of the reasons for not growing pearls for longer periods of time and some of the ways how pearl farming can affect the environment…both in a positive and a negative manner.