OK. Tried my best to do a play-of-words with the title (have I failed miserably???) and the contents of this entry. This is all about the recent visit of the crew of Mexican Magazine “México Desconocido” (it would translate into “Unknown Mexico”) to our pearl farm just last week! (May 22nd).
If you follow our Blog you may have heard that we appeared in this magazine in a full-fledged article back in the year 2007. The article was called “Sowing Pearls and Dreams in Guaymas” (lovely title, unfortunately not translated into English but you may use a translator to achieve a minimum degree of information). The article was really well written and had some really good photos. We are very thankful to Mexico Desconocido for this chance to appear before their audience.
The photos I mention do not appear in the on-line version of the article so I prepared this small collage of the article that will give you a better insight.
This year, Mexico Desconocido has returned to Guaymas and decided to re-visit us. On this occasion we are not going to be featured in a unique article but instead we will become a part of an article about Guaymas-San Carlos, showcasing our local beauties and attractions…the pearl farm is –of course- a major attraction in the area.
So our own Manuel Nava took the reigns and received our friend Mariel Rivera –she is the head of the local visitor’s center in San Carlos- and two young reporters from this magazine so they could visit our Pearl Farm in style…they even had a boat ride to the farm.
Finally, they had the chance of seeing the end product: thousands of colorful cultured and Mabe pearls! Mariel even tried on some of our amazing new jewelry designs made 100% in Mexico (pearl, silver, design and workmanship).
So, now that you have seen that “Unknown Mexico” knows about us…What are you waiting to come and visit and know more about the farm and its pearls???
I mean…specially if you are in the vicinity, the next closest commercial Pearl Farm (by this I mean a REAL pearl farm and not a tourist trap) is located in Fiji, some 10,000 kilometers (6,000 miles) away from us!!!
Guaymas is much closer (unless you are not of course and you are reading this blog in Fiji itself) and we do have these great places to eat, beautiful beaches and sunsets, stunning desert views and diving and fishing enough to satiate your desires…and did I mention… PEARLS????? Yes, we have them too.
So, just come on over and enjoy our hospitality! Hope to see you down here at the farm soon.
This will be a short entry because it is just a comment on the visit made by the production team of British TV company that produces series for a very popular television channel (whose logo is similar to a Yellow rectangle and hint: they have a magazine by the same name) whose name I cannot disclose because I we to sign a non-disclosure agreement, but this particular program is about out-of-the-ordinary farming activities, mainly interesting situations that involve the use of unusual animals that produce out of the ordinary products.
The show’s producer is Nick Patterson and he visited with cameraman Pete Allibone for an intense day of filming that included all the typical work activities in a pearl farm: the cleaning of oysters, the implant/seeding operation, the pearl harvest, diving at the farm, spat/seed collection and the traditional "release of pearls". In short: we were able of compressing four years of work in just one intense work and filming session of about 12 hours.
This is a review of some of the things that happened during the filming:
Spat/Baby Oyster Collection
The month of December is not the best for spat collection, we were basically inspecting the spat collectors we placed in the bay in the month of September (the collectors are usually left in the sea between 2 to 4 months) and we had previously checked on them and we did not find much seed in them, thus we believed this going to be a problem for the filming, but our brave “Yaqui" workers had something to say about this: "Kiko" and "Zorrito" each found 5 small Rainbow Lipped Oyster seeds (and about 10 black-lipped oyster seeds), so after just a couple of hours of anguish and uncertainty, it had been accomplished and we passed unto the next round of trials.
Diving in the Farm Farm
Despite being in the month of December at the time of the shoot, water temperature had not dropped to what we consider a "normal winter" and we still had a "nice" temperature of 20 degrees Celsius (68 F), a temperature that made Manuel, Enrique and Pete subject to intense temperature changes, since being on the boat under the sun in their wetsuits subjected them to a strong heat and then they had to jump into the icy water… I feel no need to explain how they felt.
Additionally, during Winter, the thermocline breaks due to the strong Northwest winds and this causes an intense upwelling of the colder, deeper waters, and this in turn causes an intense phytoplankton bloom, thus the waters of Bacochibampo Bay become intensely green and murky…we usually refer to this as “swimming in cold pea soup”. Pete informed us several times that the shots were extremely difficult to take and that his camera showed terrible visibility (for us, accustomed to these things, we believe that visibility "fair", because when it is "terrible" you cannot even see the palm of your hand when you extend your arm), so hopefully the images will come out okay. Wishful thinking.
The Pearl Seeding Operation
Ah! The delicate surgical operation needed for the production of a cultured pearl: an arcane technical secret protected by Japanese technicians and “rediscovered” by Mexican researchers… an operation that should take no more than 40 seconds to minimize mortality of the oyster, this complex operation will be "immortalized" in this video and I can assure you it will be amazing just because of the amount of detail and complexity that Nick and Pete imprinted on their work: the number of shots and angles will be the delight of fans of the arcane, and I just hope that their video editing work will be able to eliminate the moments when everything was going wrong: when the beads were falling off, when the mantle graft needle did not "grab" the graft-tissue and when something could go wrong it just did.
But al of these problems had an explanation in the technical needs of the shoot: the light we use to illuminate the inside of the oyster was placed in the most appropriate place for the camera and not for the grafter (me), my head was in a position that was more suited of a patient visiting the chiropractor than for one who performs an operation, otherwise the huge HD camera would not have had a clear view to the inside of the oyster.
So, after three hours of continuous shooting they may have be obtained some 40-60 seconds of usable video, but I’m hoping this will result in a very interesting segment… but you will just have to wait until March 2013 to see the final result!
The Pearl Harvest
As you are well aware, we already finished the 2012 pearl harvest and therefore we did not have any pearl oysters ready for this event; so it was necessary for us to harvest some oysters that had to be harvested until the summer of 2013. We obtained a few pearls of great beauty and amongst these a beautiful dark purple pearl. This is perhaps one reason why this program wanted to film here in Guaymas and not in Australia or Japan or China: because the color of our pearls is totally different from other pearls productions and this is something that is sure to amaze those who think that pearls are only black or white, or in short to something like 95% of the public (but not to you, faithful followers of this blog) that these TV producers hope to have for this program.
The Pearl Release
I’ve just given this name to this “annual event” because I could not think of a better way to explain it in short, but this event happens just after the harvest of pearls, and what we do is simply take all the low quality pearls and –instead of selling them- we throw them all back into the sea (in a preselected, deep area of the bay, I’m just making sure you know this so you will be discouraged to look for them), there they will be "eaten" by nacre-eating bacteria (recyclers) who will release the pearl’s chemicals back into the water, where they will once again become available for other marine organisms. This is our way to avoid low-quality pearls from reaching the market, we do not cause ourselves any embarrassing moment and we avoid any temptation, ensuring a risk-free future for the Cortez Pearl: for us, pearl quality and value is essential, not optional.
Usually, the release of these pearls is carried out in a sort of ceremony, so we individually "dedicate" this event to a given person: this year we dedicated this event to all the brave Yaqui Indians that in times past gave their lives in the pearl fisheries, and also to the little oysters that produce our pearls and allow us to earn our daily bread and finally, to all our blessed customers, the people who put their faith in our quality and appreciate the unique beauty of this Gem. For this video shoot, the ceremony was entirely visual and we had to release the pearls at sunset, from a rocky cliff on the coast, where we were trying to avoid falling. This was definitively the most dangerous of all video shots.
As the Sun fell…
After a busy day of work on the farm and with a heavy fog that hung over the bay, Nick and Pete were preparing to take time-lapse shot of the sunset over the majestic hill "Tetakawi", but the thick fog left us totally immersed in an other-worldly gray mist; I’m sure this made our intrepid Londoners feel quite at home. The truth is that I had all but given up this time (absolutely NOTHING could seen farther than 100 feet away) but this intrepid pair sought ways to find the sunset and they did: a small chink of light appeared on the horizon and they achieved some beautiful shots.
Then it was time to say goodbye amid beers at a local pub, Nick and Pete showed us some of the photographs they took at the farm and many of the shots really amazed us with their quality: some artists really are at good at what they do, and have an amazing professionalism and vision that makes them truly worthy of the "Yellow Rectangle" brand (I am not saying they work for this brand, I’m just equaling the quality of their work to that of the implied brand…ok? But I’m not saying it is not…I’m not saying anything!).
We wished these artists a good trip back home, and we were left with a series of experiences and emotions. Maybe something that really catches my attention is just how many people around us were excited and surprised saying: “Did this TV program really came just to visit the Pearl Farm????” And when Nick Patterson asked where they came from (their trip was from London to Los Angeles and then to Hermosillo and finally Guaymas) and if they had really just come to visit us… this mind-boggling for some. Another thing that apparently caught everyone’s attention was Nick’s comment about the the view from my office and how it is much better than the one in his London office: It’s true, our Bacochibampo Bay is amazing in its natural beauty.
What I can say? Not much, just that our “world” is accustomed to assign value only to the things that have been massively publicized in the media and that have received an injection of millions of dollars, and against this mentality is hard to do anything, but perhaps this bit publicity will help us to achieve some greater regional acceptance; this is something we have not been able to achieve locally: can we become prophets in our own land? Only time will give us the answer…
It has taken me more than 4 weeks to finish this entry. We are in the middle of the pearl seeding season so most of my time is spent at the farm so I have to apologize for the terrible delay in delivery, I do anticipate more delays since we will continue this crucial procedures and we will also be going to this year’s Tucson Gem show…so please bear with me.
For us down here in Mexico the month of September represents many things:
Celebrations! This is considered to be the “Patriotic Month”, with a big celebration on September 16th due to our Independance from Spain some 202 years ago.
The change in the local government, so we enjoy to see the people from City Hall move out (and hope we never see them again!)…altough we don’t really enjoy seeing the new batch settle in.
Time to enjoy some colorful delicacies such as the “Chiles en Nogada” (spiced ground-beef stuffed Poblano peppers, covered with a delicious cream made out of walnuts and sprinkled with ruby-red pomegranate).
For a Pearl Farmer, September also means a time for Healing and Fearfulness. This is the time when we repair our land-based facilities and use our time to mend and repair our nets, cages, aquculture lines and boats. Starting the month of October all the way down to June we have so much work with our Rainbow Lip Oysters that we do not have the time to taka care of any of these repairs. This is our time for Healing.
And what about Fear? This is the month when we get most of our tropical storms & hurricanes. If you have read some of our previous posts on Hurricane Damage on our farm and related facilities you will understand our anxiety over these powerful acts of Nature.
As always, the best option is to have seconds on the “Chiles en Nogada” and some would say this is not optional. In the case of the pearl farm we only have a couple of options:
Praying (really hard, eyes closed and all).
Removing flotation (buoys) from the farm.
There is a good reason to do both things, but I will specifically refer to the second option on this ocassion.
Fixing the Closet
One of the things that happen when we have a tropical storm in the area is that we have very strong winds and these will turn the surface of the bay into a great choppy mess. The waves become big (those that have visited may recall that -during summer- Bacochibampo bay is a beautiful mirror-like bay) and may have a powerful damaging effect on everything found on it, such as: flinging yachts unto the main road in San Carlos (something that happened in 2003 with hurricane “Marty”), “eating up” whatever land based facilities you have (such as a docking area) and destroying a pearl farm. How exactly can these large waves destroy a farm?
In case you don’t know how our pearl farm works, it is basically known as a “suspended culture long-line system” in the textbooks. If you are not an aquaculture expert you can refer to it as what I call “a marine closet” (with no skeletons inside): imagine you are in front of a typical closet and you have a metal-rod from which clothes are hanged (with the help of a wire hanger of course). Now: a “long-line” consists of a horizontal rope (ours are 50 meters/164 feet long) that is kept close to the surface by means of floats/buoys, and from this line of rope we “hang” our oyster cages. So, in essence these two seemingly different things work in almost the same way…but our closet is in the ocean and it would drift away unless we anchor the line, so each line is anchored to the bottom. The following diagram might clarify this a bit.
The nice thing about this kind of aquaculture system is that it is cheaper than other systems and you can use a small boat to easily gain access to your valuable “clothes” (the culture cages) just by plucking your arm into the water, grabing hold of the cage’s line we can easily drag it out of the water and then release the rope from the long-line and you’re off. A good system, barely offering any water resistance nor drag. Great to work with in winter time too, since water temperature may drop to some 15 degrees Celsius (59 Fahrenheit) and you don’t feel like getting inside the water when it is this cold!
Anyway, this great system works very well under most conditions, but hurricanes are an exception because the long-lines are tailored to a certain water depth by means of the lines that are anchored to the bottom. When the waves come in in great numbers –one after another one- and their height exceeds the operating depth what happens is that the floats will keep the main line near the surface and they basically drag the anchoring system off the bottom and the farm –as silly as it may sound- starts “jumping” like an inchworm, slowly, to where the wind & waves command it to go.
In the year 2003, hurricane “Marty” destroyed most of our farm because the lines were carried away, became entangled and many ended up in the beach…were our oysters suffocated. We had never experienced such an effect before and we have never seen it happen again because we now understand how to avoid this enemy.
There are solutions to this problem of course, some are easier to implement and others are more expensive. We managed to find a solution that is easily implemented and cheap. But let us talk of these solutions on the next episode…shall we?
And on this new post we continue with the description of Jesus “El Tigre” Mendoza’s activities at our Pearl Farm:
All my life I have lived in Guaymas, yet I did not know that there was a place where animals were cultivated for the production of pearls. Of course I knew about edible oyster and shrimp farms, but I never imagined that we had a pearl farm, right here in Guaymas! but we had all heard the faint rumors. It was not until November 2010, when –while attending ITSON– I had a course named “Natural and Cultural Attractions”, the course’s professor being one of the Pearl Farm’s owners. Our new teacher -Douglas McLaurin Moreno- took the whole group for a field trip to this “farm” and was here that I learned how to they raised the “pearl oysters” for the production of cultured pearls.
It was a great experience to learn about pearl farming. And then, after almost two years of having visited the site, I finally had the opportunity to “work” here doing my “professional stays” at the pearl farm; in January of this year I became a key part of several research projects for the company, including one that aims to monitor the many marine species that grow alongside the oysters in the pearl culturing cages.
From that moment I began to understand the great importance of having a pearl farm in Guaymas, and later I began to think that this benefit is not solely for Guaymas, but for the entire Sea of Cortez. When we take the culture cages from out of the sea, to evaluate the growth of the “Rainbow Lip Oysters” (also known as Pteria sterna) there is always a great host of marine fauna alongside the farm-raised mollusks; it was impressive to see that in a such a small space –that of the cage- you can find such a great variety of animal species, in what appears to be complete harmony.
So I was tasked to keep track of all these species, keeping track of all vertebrate (fish) and invertebrate fauna: the different species found as well as their number, but being specially on the lookout for these 3 main species: the “Panamic Black Lip Pearl Oyster” (Pinctada mazatlanica), the “Pen Shells” (Atrina maura, Pinna rugosa) and the “Sea cucumbers” (holothurians). I still monitored dozens of other species such as: crustaceans (Spiny Lobsters, pistol shrimps, banded ghost shrimps –Lysmata californica- and swimming crabs), several fishes (Angel fishes, Soap-fishes, Groupers, Snappers, Catfishes, Eels & Blennies) bivalves (mussels, scallops, Blood Cockles, Chocolate clams) and many others.
It was very interesting to notice how many of these species grow, some even attaining large dimensions -as in the case of the Sea Cucumbers- of up to 20 centimeters (7.8 inches) in length. Holothurians are animals commonly known as “sea cucumbers”, due to their elongated bodies with a shape similar to that of that vegetable. They are related to starfish and sea urchins (Echinoderms).
Holothurians, have a very important biological function in coastal areas: they clean the seabed of those accumulated organic wastes. They belong to a group of animals referred to as bottom-feeders: they just basically eat the organic material found within the sediment (sand), and what they excrete is just clean sand, without any organic matter. And here why these animals have such a great biological importance: if a bay has an adequate amount of sea cucumbers, its sand will remain cleaner and we will be able to enjoy white sand, not the “dark and sticky” sand we sometimes find in some areas. This is what I was told here at the farm: that these animals are providing us all of with this free environmental service.
Just in the month of January, this pearl farm was able of “rescuing” (meaning: they were returned to their natural environment) some 2,262 sea cucumbers, which averaged 11 cm (4.3 inches) in length; if these creatures had been returned to their environment while still young they would have had become food for predators since their defense mechanism is not yet sufficiently developed (when a sea cucumber is attacked, it can expel its viscera (guts) which are sticky and mildly-toxic, but the sea cucumber does not die because it can regenerate its guts in a few days and just like that), but by growing them in a farm they will be able to escape their natural predators.
Although in Mexico Sea Cucumbers are not considered valuable (because people here do not eat them nor can they be used for souvenirs), in many Asian countries (such as China, Japan and Korea) they are used in their cuisine and they are also considered to be an aphrodisiac. Such is their demand in Asia that they have been fished out of our waters, these animals no longer doing their environmental service for us.
So this is where I began to understand the other great benefit of this pearl farm: not only are its benefits coming directly from the jobs that come with the production of the pearls, but the farm is also helping towards the reproduction and growth of other wildlife fauna, since the aquaculture cages offer protection and security to many species -providing refuge from predators- until they can return to the sea to continue their natural processes. The farm offers a free environmental service as well.
Therefore, this company does not just favouring the recovery of some animal species -such as with sea cucumbers- but it is also benefiting the local fishing industry; from my perspective I believe that the farm protects many species of fish that are commercially caught for human consumption or fish that become food for these and that are later released back into the Bay. This seems to be a true sustainable industry, not only for Guaymas but for the entire Gulf of California: an industry that does not lead to the extermination of marine life and where it will become protected for all future generations.
To finalize this article: staying in a pearl farm is for nature lovers, because you are next to the sea in a place where can protect marine species, ensuring a future for all. And this is something that I have learned while working at the “Sea of Cortez Pearl” farm in Guaymas.
And now we have come to the end of Jesus’ personal contribution to our Blog. I thank him for giving us his unique perspective. In future posts we will –once more- continue with the “El Mechudo” saga and more Mabe Pearl production, so keep visiting and do take the time to let me know your thoughts.
After a short absence due to our many obligations at the pearl farm and also at the Gem Show in Tucson, Arizona, we continue to share our experiences in the pearl production. And for us, an important part of our aquaculture process is based on Environmental Sustainability: the production of pearls with full-respect for Bacochibampo Bay’s ecosystems.
An It is because of this reason that -through the years- we have carried out an active process of re-stocking of several native species, whose populations have become endangered because of the fishing activities carried out by the locals. Among these species we can list the following: the “Black-lip pearl oyster”, the “Lion’s Paw Scallop”, the “Pen Shells” and the “Sea Cucumbers”.
However, our efforts have not been effectively transmitted to the general public because we basically have a one-man PR department (me!) and that I do spend most of my time working (as expected!) either in the production of pearl oysters and their pearls OR in the process of selling pearls and pearl jewelry; and the little time left from these occupations does not allow us to carry out an effective social communication effort although we do have our website up-&-running, as well as this blog (in two languages), a Facebook page and a Tweeter account.
But this year we have the fortune of having two young, bright and hardworking students helping us out at the farm. These students of the Guaymas Campus of ITSON (a local Public University) are about to graduate as Bachelor’s in Tourism. Thanks to an academic program of this important local institution, this young pair will help us in two very important areas: Sales and Research.
In the Sales area we have the invaluable assistance of Miss Veronica Machado and in the production area we have the strong support of Jesus Antonio Mendoza. Jesus Antonio -known by his nickname “El Tigre”- is helping in data collection and analyzing the important biological information for several small projects, including the “Sea Cucumbers Project” and the bio-cleaning of pearl-cages.
I have asked Jesus “El Tigre” Mendoza to write a bit about his experiences of working in our pearl farm, as their training focuses mainly on tourism and he has a very different way of viewing our pearl farming activities: this is an entirely “alien concept”. And this is his first contribution to the Blogosphere. I hope you will be able to see things through the eyes of this young man:
From a very young age I have had great admiration and respect for nature, especially for all the natural resources that exist in the region where I live; I have always admired the contrasting combination found between the mountains, the desert and the sea. Despite of living in a place where the climate is extreme and where there is almost no rain, I’m always surprised how plants and animals have adapting to survive in these arid lands, and how our people have learned to survive.
I live in a very popular city located in northwestern Mexico: the famous port of Guaymas, located in the state of Sonora, which is situated on the shores of the Sea of Cortez (aka Gulf of California). This port’s economy is largely dependent on fishing, although in recent years has all fisheries have declined, due to over-exploitation, and thus this activity -in turn- came to be partially replaced by the maquiladora industry, but these do not provide the same quality of life –as fishing did- to our community.
It is until now that I have come to understand the great importance of the Sea of Cortez, not only for Guaymas but for the whole world: this sea has a unique biodiversity of marine species, all which are part of a large marine ecosystem on which we all depend for our survival. Species such as the vaquita marina, and the native species that are found at the pearl farm, such as the sea cucumbers, the many starfishes, the Cortez Angelfish, among others are just a part of a long list of flora and fauna that live in our waters.
The Gulf of California is also breeding place for beauty and rarity, the home of a Gem which is produced by a rarely-known pearl oyster species: the “Rainbow Lip Oyster”, an animal that produces pearls of intense and diverse colors: red, purple, blue, green and rainbow-like. Here at the farm they become high-end jewelry items, used primarily by women that visit this farm.
Soon –and thanks to the help of Veronica & Jesus- we will be finalizing details of our next “El Mechudo” video and we will have additional presentations from Jesus and Veronica.
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):
Short History of the Cortez Pearl
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”.
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…
These are from bag # 1…
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 …
Keshi Pearls and Natural Pearls
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.
There are few moments as exciting to a Pearl Farmer as that of the time to harvest his pearls. This means the culmination of 4 years of taking care of your pearl oysters, years of worries caused by natural phenomena (the "Niño" and "Niña" years, as well as from hurricanes and tropical storms) or human causes. It is at this moment when we can take a deep breath and feel our pressure lowering in relief, only to be replaced by heavy-breathing and an increased heart-rate, but this time caused by the hope of finding that pearl that John Steinbeck referred to as the "Pearl of the World", as described in his novel “The Pearl”, that huge, beautiful & flawless pearl that Kino finds after years of pearl fishing.
And apparently, we are not alone in expecting such a yearly precious event –since it only takes place during the month of June- because this year we were truly honored to be visited by the great German gemologist Elisabeth Strack, author of a book that is considered –by most- as "The Bible of Pearls”, a book for all lovers of this amazing organic gem: "Perlen" (in German) or "Pearls" (in English). Unfortunately there are no editions in other languages, but this is an awesome book that has a great quantity and quality of information about all types of pearls.
And, at this point I don’t know if I can say if you do not say whether Elisabeth had bad or good luck -it will depend on her personal opinion- during her second visit to our pearl farm, because she arrived on the first day of June, and at that time we also had the visit of Mexico’s President, Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, in Guaymas; this due to the fact we were also celebrating the “Day of the Navy”, so she had the chance to see a whole array of sailors, armored vehicles, navy helicopters and warships in Guaymas. Regardless of her opinion, she did bring us "good luck", as this year’s pearl harvest seems as it will become the best of our history, at least in color and beauty of the harvested pearls.
Elisabeth Strack visited us because she has been working on her book’s second edition, and updated data and information is much required and this cannot be gathered just by hearsay. When at the first day of harvest with us, she noticed that some of the colors on our pearls just seemed to be impossible: because she just could not believe some of the colors she was seeing… even when she saw the pearls just coming out of our pearl oysters. And I assume that is a normal reaction for people who have seen pearl harvests in other types of pearl oysters, such as those from the Pinctada genus, or from pearly-mussels (Family Unionidae), but this was her first time watching cultured and natural pearls come out from our "Rainbow Lipped Pearl Oyster” (Pteria sterna). This incredible color saturation is observed even in the shells of this year’s oysters.
Cortez Pearl Harvest 2011
And I was wondering if you’ve seen how pearls are harvested here in Guaymas? We have several videos available on YouTube, but this is probably my favorite from the 2009 harvest:
Cultured Pearl Harvest Video
And mentioned that Elisabeth was amazed with the natural colors of our pearls as it is rare to find such a variety of colors on a single crop in just one location. The "black pearl" of French Polynesia are mainly dark, but each atoll can produce a certain range of colors. Here in Guaymas we have been blessed with every imaginable body-color and overtones on our pearls. And as a sampler we have some photos…
On the photo above, a beautiful dark purple pearl, with three pearl behind it: one green, a “red” one and a blue colored one.
A couple more photos, now one with our so called “Yori” or “white pearls”, always displaying green and pink overtones.
And I must make it very clear that the pearls came out with the colors you are seeing, they were not processed in any way: not polished (to improve their luster or "make them shiny"), there were not "bleached" chemically to make them white, nor stained/dyed to darken them. They are simply the result of an amazing natural pigmentation process.
These pearls belong to the group of “Green” pearls, but our “green pearls” are very different from the typical Tahitian "green” pearl because Cortez Pearls tend to be brighter, not the “dark-black” color. Our greens also mix with other colors, making them uniquely different.
These last pearls have a reddish body color (violet) with green overtones, leaning towards the “Peacock” color of Tahitian Pearls but not exactly…they are also unique. It seems that this year this Red color will be rather generous. The "red pearls" or "Cranberry” are incredibly rare, so most of those seen for sale have an artificial color (and you can tell it is), but here in Guaymas we are fortunate enough to produce a dozen or so with this “cranberry” color per year.
And Elisabeth returned to Germany, but before she did she also updated her knowledge on Authentic Mexican-Sonoran Food (unlike the variety they serve in Germany), allowing her taste buds to indulge in the sinful dishes served at our favorite restaurant ("Los Arbolitos de Cajeme"): a “tower” of fresh sea-scallops, fresh tomatoes and avocado slices with some spicy olive-oil dressing, shrimp and smoked-marlin “Toritos” (Banana Peppers filled with these delicacies), a fresh crab meat “tostada”, a savory seafood “machaca” (made with finely minced squid, shrimp and scallops) and an extravagant fish fillet covered with a hot cactus, onion and pepper topping… I surely hope that Elisabeth will have additional reasons to return next year to Guaymas.
I hope this entry about the 2011 Cortez Pearl harvest was of interest to you. I will eventually write-up this year’s harvest’s full information (quantity of harvested pearls, size of harvested pearls, shapes, colors, qualities, etc.) since we still have 30% of the harvest yet to reap and we are still hopeful, as we are every year, to find the "Pearl of the World .
Continuing with the subject of “pearl culture and the environment”, we will now talk about some of the reasons why a farmer will not want to culture his pearls for a longer period of time, and also of how a pearl farm can affect the environment: but remembering that this can be in either a positive or negative way.
And, before we continue I want to tell you that this topic will cover a good number of entries in our “Cortez Pearl Blog”. In fact, this whole subject could be used to write a chapter of a book, but this is not the goal; what I’m trying to accomplish is to create some awareness and that you will come to understand that pearl cultivation is a very complex industry because it interacts constantly with natural and human factors (economic and ethical). I am going to approach several subjects, and will do so in such a way that I hope you will not feel that this is like going to school again.
So, off we go…
Behind every great Pearl there is a Great Pearl Oyster…
Many may assume that the main reason for not extending the length of the pearl cultivation period is to be able to produce more pearls in less time; but this would not be the only reason, so we firstly have understand that behind Pearl cultivation there is yet another culturing period: that of the pearl oysteritself.
In order to produce a cultured pearl we first require an oyster to grow the pearl in. But, pearl oysters do not simply appear from thin air (spontaneous generation) at the farm: we have to get them; and this can be done in two ways:
By “growing” or raising young pearl oysters (usually known as “spats”)
By means of the Fishing of Wild Fully-Grown Pearl Oysters (adults)
Which one of these methods will you use? Well this depends -a lot- on the country or region where you plan to start your pearl farm, the species you want to grow and your motivations. How can this be so? Let us dissect this subject, piece by piece…
The Pearl Cultivation Period
So, what makes a farmer decide to cultivate pearls for longer or shorter periods of time? As it has been heard many times “Time is Money” and it sure is: the time spent by the farmer to grow his pearls represents a constant risk. The risks are real and can put an end to a farming company. This is a short list of the real risks:
Water pollution: oil spills, water runoffs with fertilizers/pesticides, etc.
Environmental disruption: that can be as dramatic as a tropical storm (hurricane) or a tsunami, or even something as subtle changes in ocean currents or extensive climate changes (such as those caused by a “ElNiño” or “La Niña” year), which can range from the partial destruction of a farm (see our series of posts on “Pearls and hurricanes”) to massive pearl oyster mortalities, or that prevents their development, the growth of pearls or their lack of beauty.
Accidents: at times – and we do know of this – a commercial fishing boat may simply decide to fish on your farm, and become entangled with your aquaculture gear; this –of course- only happens if the ship’s Captain decides that he does not want to respect a no-fishing zone and does so at night, when there is no visibility. This has happened to us.
Due to the above risks, a farmer can easily lose some of his pearl-oyster stock, pearl culturing equipment and boats. In the year 2003 we lost 70% of our oysters with Hurricane “Marty”, and in Japan a producer of “Kasumiga” pearls lost half of his farm to the tsunami of 2011. In some cases, the loss of the farm is the least of his problems: in 1996 a Cook Islands pearl farmer died because he was swept away by the waves that struck the atoll where he had his farm. His body was never recovered.
The “Right Time”: No more & No less
Thus, if a farmer has to produce pearls for 4 years – as we do – the risks simply accumulate, day by day. On the other hand, if the producer is dedicated to extract wild oysters and subsequently produces pearls with a short cultivation period (4-10 months) then his risks are minimal. The issue here is to find the correct thing to do: have the right time to grow good quality pearls and have a TOLERABLE risk. But, I have yet to mention to another “party” or 3rd-person involved in the industry: the environment.
From our point of view, the environment must have voice and vote in our farming decisions; but, how do you listen to the voice of an ecosystem? Do we really have to grow long-hair, dress in a “hippie” style and ingest some hallucinogenic plants? Well, this was never really part of our plan: so, what you have to do is monitor the environment.
But there are many things -or parameters- you can monitor in your local environment… how can you choose the appropriate things to monitor? It is definitely not simple to choose, but you don’t really have to hire a consulting group to help you: keep it simple and clean. You can simply take into account the natural environment at the time that you “receive it” (before you begin your farming activities); you simply “audit” your “biological inventory” (noticing the easily noticeable species, avoid microscopic life-forms) and with the passage of time you will notice changes:
Do some species disappear or some (new ones) appear?
Are there are any changes in the ocean’s floor (smell, color, grain size)?
Are there any physical and chemical changes (salinity, pH, dissolved oxygen) in seawater?
Are your oysters healthy?
The simplest thing to do is to just monitor points # 1 and 4, but we will further discuss some of the other key-points within the same series, so if this interests you: visit this Blog at least once a month. In addition, there will be some things that you cannot change nor influence and that you cannot be held responsible for.
A significant decision in the pearl culturing period is set by the way in which a farmer gathers his pearl oysters for cultivation. There are basically two ways (some would say three) in which you can obtain pearl oysters for your farm:
By using “spat” or pearl oyster juveniles: this can be done by either collecting juveniles from the environment or through the purchase of “Lab raised spat”, produced in highly specialized production centers;
Fishing for “Wild Grown (adult) oysters”: these animals are usually obtained by fishermen that will sell the wild-raised pearl oyster to a farmer (at a price that ranges from cents to some $15 US dollars per oyster, pricing depending on multiple conditions) or by pearl-divers that are employed by the farmer. The preferred oyster sizes range between 10 and 16 cm (4-6 inches) in diameter, which will allow you to grow larger pearls.
In the next installment, I will continue talking of the differences in the use of these strategies and their possible effects on the environment, although I might come up with a small report on this year’s pearl harvest (it looks really good). If you have doubts…questions…just ask and I will try to answer them. 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.