On December, 2010, we had an unexpected visitor to our farm: Richard D. Fisher, author of some of my favorite books about Mexico’s Copper Canyon and the Sea of Cortez, such as: “National Parks of Northwest Mexico”, and his latest “Copper Canyon: Chihuahua, Mexico”. Not only is the information on the books interesting and quite accurate, but they also have valuable historical, geological and ethnographic information and EXCELLENT PHOTOS. So, you may imagine my surprise when I met Richard in a Bus Tour group from our friends at “A Closer Look Tours”…I was honored to take the whole group to a complete tour of our pearl farm and –as usual- answer our visitor’s questions regarding the subject of pearls (one of these days I will write a Blog-post with the most common and interesting questions we’ve been asked), and guess who asked one of the “best questions” we’ve been asked over the years? Yes, it was Richard D. Fisher indeed, and the question was: “Did the Japanese really Poison the Sea of Cortez’s Pearl Beds in the 1940’s???”
Let us ponder on this story, so let us go back to the early years of the 20th Century…
From 1900 to 1920:
In those days, the Mexican Pearl Fisheries were still quite active throughout the Gulf of California, but mainly around the Southern tip of the Lower California peninsula (Baja California Sur), with La Paz acting as the main pearl trade-hub. Skin divers were still very much active in the fisheries, but after several hundreds of years of “pearling”, the pearl beds had become less plentiful, thus a new breed of diver was needed: the Helmeted Diver. And these were few in numbers but could work for hours and could go deeper than the typical skin diver, thus it was possible to find larger –older- oysters in deeper waters and fetch some larger pearls.
At the same moment, Dr. Gastón Vivés had his farm up and running quite successfully until 1914 when it was destroyed by the “Constitutionalist Army” during the Mexican Revolution. And from this moment on, the only pearls that could be obtained from these waters were the 100% natural pearls from wild-caught oysters (as opposed to the natural pearls from farm-raised oysters from Dr. Vivés’ black lip farm). And you may imagine that during a civil war people become even more impoverished and will have to resort to sacking their most valuable natural resources in order to obtain funds to sustain them…and this is what probably happened to the pearl beds in the area once the “Pearling Companies” (mostly Mexican, but some even from Great Britain and other parts of Europe) stopped their operations during and after the Revolution.
From 1921 to 1940:
This is a particularly bleak period for the pearl fisheries. The beds on the Baja California side had become commercially exhausted (meaning: no sense in fishing them anymore), but had time to “revive” on the mainland side (mainly in Sonora and Sinaloa). A couple of areas were particularly good “placeres” (name given to places were a given resource is abundant): the waters in front of Caborca and those around “Isla Tiburón”, were the fishery was conducted by the Seri Indian Nation. But in any case, the pearls were on the brink of becoming a legend…then, complete disaster struck the area: in 1939 a “mysterious disease” was traveling from the northern part of the Gulf of California, moving southwards and killing every single black lipped pearl oyster, leaving just empty shells which were identified by the local fishermen due to their silvery shine…
By 1940 the few remaining pearl beds in the Gulf had been decimated and the Cortez Pearl became the newest addition to the vast collection of Mexican fables, stories, myths and legends.
The Japanese Conspiracy Theory
In the late 1930’s most Mexican people were not really thinking of the future “space race” nor with “little green men” and had little interest in such “conspiracy theories”…but this does not mean that our fishermen lacked from imagination nor ideas. They actually began to wonder what some boats with “rising sun” flags and men from a different language and race were doing inside their Gulf…and these men seemed quite suspicious: they anchored here and dropped little devices into the water, retrieved them and then moved to another spot and repeated the process and, yet, they never seemed to fish anything! Also, instead of the friendly exchange of products (cigars, gas, bait, etc.) that they seemed to enjoy with other fishermen –regardless of nationality- these guys were overly serious and would not trade a thing!!! They must be up to some mischief indeed!!!
Back in 1939, many Mexican fishermen still remembered the importance of their pearl fisheries and considered the local pearl oysters as a useful food & shell resource that might reward them with a very valuable gem…if they were truly lucky. Some people had heard that the Japanese had begun producing cultured pearls and that they seemed to be unparalleled in their ability to produce them; still, many believed that cultured pearls were no match to the “real thing” (the natural pearl) and that Mexico would once again become a major league player in the World’s pearl markets.
So, add ingredient #1 (the presence of “tricksy” Japanese in the Gulf) and ingredient #2 (the Return of the Mexican Pearl) and you basically have created a plot, a Japanese conspiracy to POISON the Sea of Cortez and destroy any possible rival for the Japanese Cultured Pearl: the Japanese vessels were dropping poison into the pearl beds to kill their opponent before it had a chance to get back on its feet. And you wouldn’t believe how many people heard of this plot, and how many talk about it as a certifiable truth: people from Guaymas, from La Paz, from Hermosillo, from Mexico City…everyone!
Now, is there any truth in this plot? Could the Japanese have really killed off the pearl beds?
The Facts and the Myths
It is a fact that many Japanese vessels with Japanese men were in the Sea of Cortez in the late 1930’s, and they were definitively up to something, but it is highly unlikely they were sent on a mission to kill pearl oysters. Why? Because with the technology available in those days it is very unlikely they could have possessed a toxin or poison made specially to kill pearl oysters…any other poison must have killed other creatures as well: all sorts of clams, snails and maybe even fish that the fishermen would have noticed. But no it did not. Even today (2011) I am not aware of a toxin that will only kill pearl oysters…and I hope it is never invented!
So, what were the Japanese doing here if not killing oysters?!?! Well, check your timeline and you will notice that the “Pacific War” officially begun in December 17th, 1941 and Japan went into war with the United States of America, Mexico’s northern neighbor. So, could it be possible that the Japanese were taking depth measurements of areas in the Sea of Cortez??? Could they possibly have planned an attack into U.S. soil from Mexico in order to avoid the heavily defended California coast??? It does sound as a possibility…doesn’t it? Unfourtunately I don’t have any information on this subject…so let us hope that Wikileaks will produce these in a couple of years.
What caused the Mass Mortalities???
This is also an interesting subject. The “official” explanation given by the Mexican Government was that it had been caused by an unknown epidemic (epizootic disease), but they never gave any scientific proof to the fact or they just wanted an easy explanation to what seemed to be a lost cause, because from that moment on (1939) the Pearl Fishery was considered officially closed and a fishing ban was imposed on the capture or fishery of the Mexican Black Lipped Pearl Oyster (Pinctada mazatlanica).
But there were other interesting things happening at the same time, such as…the operation of the United States’ great “Hoover Dam”. Let me place a quote from Wikipedia’s here to further explain:
The changes in water use caused by Hoover Dam’s construction has had a large impact on the Colorado River Delta. The construction of the dam has been credited as causing the decline of this estuarine ecosystem. For six years, after the construction of the dam and while Lake Mead filled, virtually no water reached the mouth of the river. The delta’s estuary, which once had a freshwater-saltwater mixing zone stretching 40 miles (64 km) south of the river’s mouth, was turned into an inverse estuary where the level of salinity was higher close to the river’s mouth.
The Colorado River had experienced natural flooding before the construction of the Hoover Dam. The dam eliminated the natural flooding, which imperiled many species adapted to the flooding, including both plants and animals. The construction of the dam decimated the populations of native fish in the river downstream from the dam. Four species of fish native to the Colorado River, the Bonytail chub, Colorado pikeminnow, Humpback chub, and Razorback sucker, are currently listed as endangered.
If “Hoover Dam” began operating in 1936 and it is known that 6 years later (1942) there was no more fresh-water flowing unto the Gulf of California, then we can begin to imagine the environmental consequences. The “Colorado River” had its waters discharging into the Gulf for millions of years and then…kaput! No more water for you! So, what are the possible consequences: the impact was felt almost immediately on the Gulf’s northern region and its wetlands, but the effect had to creep down as the lack of freshwater made the Gulf of California “saltier” (the “average” salinity of the world’s ocean is 3.5%, with that of the Sea of Cortez being almost 3.6%) and a higher salinity level usually means less dissolved oxygen (which marine animals will use to breathe from the water). Besides this fact we can imagine that many other substances came with the river’s waters, including silt and many minerals…all these possibly very important to sustain a variety of marine plants and microscopic algae, creatures that are considered the basis of most marine ecosystems.
You may say “but the river’s water stopped flowing in 1942 and the oysters died in 1939!!!”, and yes…that is a fact, but the fact remains that there was less water available each year since the dam’s inauguration and by 1939 this was already causing havoc on our local ecosystems.
Have we finally pinpointed the truth to this dire plot or conspiracy theory? Not at all. I believe that there is still much to be done to reach this point, but a possibility would be that we could have indeed had a negative effect from “Hoover Dam” and this combined with the overfishing of the pearl beds and maybe we even had an epidemic or –just to make matters worse- an unknown environmental change. In any case: the Japanese are not to blame. They did not poison the Sea of Cortez to kill off a potential commercial threat.
I would also like to point out that I am in no way now blaming the American people for this disaster (we played our own part in this tragedy), and in those days (1930’s) few people knew or cared or understood how significant something like this truly was. Even now, few Nations are willing to consider Nature as a “User” of a given natural resource. In the meantime, we might speculate that our pearl oysters have had time to adapt to their “new” environment and –if given the opportunity- they will be able to repopulate our waters once more.
This is a subject that we wanted to discuss since quite some time ago, but instead we have been discussing various topics in order to be able to capture the attention of as many readers as possible, especially since talking and educating about pearls is somewhat complex and requires greater intention. So far, despite the fact that we have already talked about “Pearl culture” and “natural pearls” -such as those once produced by Don Gaston Vivés in Baja California- (see our entries on this topic) there are still many people who are confused or who have received incorrect information on the subject. We have found that on Spanish language sites –by the way: this Blog is primarily for Spanish language readers, but we do some effort to have an English version in order to be a bit more “universal” -there is from none to very little information on the subject of natural pearls in Spanish on the web, but in English this is not the case (some very good sites on the subject are: Kari pearls and Love to Know 1911), but you can never have enough information, so here we will try to answer all questions or -at the least– will help you to find new questions (not a bad thing per se).
So let us start this fascinating topic of natural pearls. First, we’ll start with a bit of history, we then will examine certain features of pearls and finally talk about how the natural pearls are formed and we do hope we can help to do away with the incredibly popular myth of “pearls are formed with a grain of sand”… I’ll try my best.
History of the discovery of the Pearl
Who discovered the first pearls? When did people begin to show an appreciation for pearls? What are we having for Lunch today? These are probably the questions that many have pondered upon for ages and for which we do not have a fulfilling answer, but let us “travel back in time” to about 10 thousand years ago (and even before that), when human groups in coastal areas or even in areas with rivers began to swim in search of food (notice the importance of question #3?) and under the philosophy of “everything that can be eaten must be eaten” they began to collect pearl oysters and mussels for lunch. Occasionally, they would find a Pearl inside and this could either become a happy moment or a time of huge annoyance… since one hard bite on a pearl can easily cause a dental crack. But let us suppose they did happen to find a “little pearl”: perfect, beautiful like the Moon, or as green as the sea, or able to display rainbow-like flashes or they were able of seeing their face reflected on it… to our ancestors this was Pure Magic. Let’s say that it could have been a good start for the discovery of the Aesthetics.
Now, how did that appreciation and admiration for these small nacreous orbs became an item used as a gem or for personal adornment? Most likely human beings were already using varied “ornaments”: shells, wood, leather, teeth, bones, stones… (it is stated that the oldest pieces of jewelry found are about 100 thousand years old and were made using snail shells, for more information click here) but the Pearl would become the highlight among any other decorative items because it was much more beautiful and would arrive in an “almost ready” state for its use: while almost all other items (corals, gemstones, ivory, etc.) would require many work-hours in order to end up used in an ornament. But the Pearl was a truly a gift of Nature… and had a value-added feature that today is not easily appreciated: its hardness (this topic will be discussed in a future blog delivery).
Once the Pearl became more and more popular in the taste of our ancestors it also became a “sacred” or “holy” gem, thus many legends and stories about pearls exist and there is not a sacred book that does not include our beloved Gem within its pages, and this also generated many theories about its formation: that its origin it was purely divine, that when angels shed tears these would fall into the sea and became pearls, or that when lightning struck the surface of the ocean pearls would be formed and would fall into the oyster’s gaping mouths (the lightning being produced by the Greek god Zeus), etc., and these ideas eventually evolved up to the this point in civilization until we finally arrived to the widely accepted idea that “a grain of sand enters the oyster’s body and irritates the animal unless it coats it up with nacre and thus…becomes Pearl”. How did we ever get this idea? Let us look into this account more closely.
The theory of the Grain of Sand
What is interesting about this idea is that most people consider it as a very logical and sound theory, and so it must be true. Let us analyze this “theory”, step by step:
- Pearl oysters live in the sea, in shallow coastal areas and are found attached on hard substrate (rocks, reefs, shells of mollusks, etc.), and in these areas there is enough sand for the purpose of “stuffing” the pearl oysters.
- It is logical to imagine that in a day with appropriate environmental conditions (waves, wind, strong currents) some sand will become suspended in the water and could travel –using sea currents- until some grains of sand find their way into an open oyster.
- At this point, the oyster is starting to feel irritation from the roughness from the grain of sand and -as a consequence- the oyster will have to defend itself from this “painful foreign body” by secreting a smooth and delicate substance –nacre- around the grain of sand in order to form a soft and delicate pearl… easy, isn’t it?
But I am sorry to say that this is not the case and I’ll be emphatic and will just say NO NO and NO!!!! That is simply not true nor accurate. And in fact, we have reliable and accurate scientific information about what actually happens to an Oyster in order for it to produce a Natural Pearl… but for some unknown reason –could it have been a marketing scam? –”the grain of sand theory” is the one that won and it ended up established in the collective conscience of humanity. How can we prove this theory as incorrect? We have two tools: the first would be using logic and the second one by means of experimentation. Let’s do this step by step.
Natural pearls were almost always scarce. Most sources mention obtaining only ONE (1) natural pearl from every 10 thousand slaughtered oysters. One Pearl for every 10 thousand little animals…. But how much sand do we have available at sea? Why so many grains of sand reaching so very few pearl oysters? How come we can’t find many more pearls?
In our experience -from what we have seen by working for over 18 years here in Bacochibampo Bay- is that water conditions can be severely affected by a change in tides, a swell or due to tropical storms, or even due to strong Northwest winds, and the change can be so severe that sea-water conditions can change from its normal blue-green color to a “caffé latté” (brown) color due to the immense amount of suspended -containing large quantities of sand and mud- sediments. At times like these, the amount of pearls which should be formed definitively has to be huge, simply because of the potential “sand-grains” in the waters. Now, this kind of phenomenon is not uncommon: it happens very often in our location, especially during winter months. That means that any Pearl Oyster in the Bay might receive from just several thousand to millions of grains of sand per week; and keep in mind that if an Oyster can live about between 6 to 16 potential years…this rises to the amount to that of billions of grains of sand = billions of pearls PER OYSTER.
Thus each pearl oyster should be the equivalent of a treasure chest: it is simply a question of diving for one Pearl Oyster in order to obtain sufficient pearls for several necklaces, bracelets, earrings and gift-sets for the whole family and –why not?- even for the pesky neighbors!!! …but, again, this is not the case: only one of every 10 thousand oysters produces a quality Pearl.
I’ve just returned from a dizzying trip to the always impressive Californian metropolis, where I joined a select group of “Pearl-People” (people linked to the pearl industry) to discuss a subject that we always discuss: pearls, pearls and more pearls. The interesting thing about such events is that they involve people who are in different areas of this field: pearl farmers, nuclei producers, wholesalers, retailers, designers, gemologists and collectors. In all: quite an interesting array of areas of expertise and depth of knowledge.
A total of 16 people were invited to the “Pearl Ruckus 2010″, an event that was promoted by Jeremy Shepherd, CEO of “Pearl Paradise“, by “Jewelmer” and by “Classical Wines of Spain”. The event included five conferences, as well as several social events where the pampered guests would enjoy fine Spanish wines, exquisite sushi and even indulge in a bit of Whiskey tasting. We were treated like royalty…and as such, pearls adorned all the fair ladies at the event.
Conferences – Saturday 24
Beginning at 10:30 am and ending at around 4 pm, we were fortunate to attend the presentations by the following lecturers:
Blaire Beavers (GemGeek): A comprehensive lecture on “Exotic Pearls”, among which Blair talked about the New Zealand’s Abalone Mabe pearls, the large orange-colored “Melo-Melo” Conch pearls, the giant pearls of the Tridacna, the beautiful and elusive Nautilus pearls (a relative of “Paul the Octopus“) and, of course, the “Cortez Pearl”. I do have to point out that GemGeek recently visited our farm (last May),but she seemed fascinated by our local fare of regional seafood, and this was quite evident in the presentation, which included pictures of the fish tacos and other delicacies.
Michael Rivers (Mikeyy): Mike’s lecture gave us a very comprehensive, interesting and detailed description of the mother-of-pearl industry of the United States, from the early 20th century to the present; it included pearl mussel fishing methods, the production process of mother of pearl buttons and of the core of most cultured pearls: the little nacre bead. The talk ended with a discussion on the future of this industry.
Renné Newman: This renowned gemologist gave her presentation on the “Zhuji Pearl Market, China” and -much to our delight- she presented the 5th Edition of her famous book “The Pearl Buying Guide“. I must admit that we learned a lot about pearl quality by using the first edition (1992) of this book and that it made us very happy to see several new sections and photographs about our “Sea of Cortez Pearls” in this new edition.
Steve Metzler (smetzler): who has made an incredible effort towards the identification and certification of two types of extremely rare natural pearls: the pearls of the “giant clam” (Tridacna) and those of the cephalopod Nautilus. This research is carried out by specialists from Spain (Dr. Checa & Dr. Cartwright) and we cannot yet disclose information any about it … the information will be published within a few months. Steve’s collection of natural Tridacna and Nautilus pearls is simply unparalleled.
Douglas McLaurin (CortezPearls): Who, as always, was enjoying himself with his presentation about the “History of the Gulf of California Pearl”, with information ranging from the pre-columbian period to the present, including details of the pearl fisheries made by Spanish-Soldier-turned-Millionaire Manuel de Ocio, the farming methods of Don Gaston Vives and the short-lived farm of Don Manuel Lozano Gallo, then easing into the 1990′s research stage and, finally, the commercial aquaculture in Guaymas, Sonora.
What I can say I that I did not mentioned before? We had the most excellent hosts in Jeremy Shepherd and lovely Hisano Takei (who wore a beautiful kimono), we had Sushi chef Hitori Hirata preparing delicious sushi, the best caviar I’ve had, a fine selection of Spanish wines, including a delicious Galician Albariño wine, we had a “Scotch Whiskey Tasting event” with the help of Michael Udhe, and to wrap it all up: the excellent comradeship amongst the guests at this unique event.
I consider myself fortunate to have been invited this year and, God willing, there will be more Mexican Pearls at the 2011 Pearl Ruckus next year …
That’s right, we have already published on the web -thanks to YouTube- our Original video on “Sea of Cortez Pearls.” This was a project we had in mind for several years, but we never had the time to invest in an “original production”. The video reached a good compromise between what we wanted to play on the video, yet we could not achieve such as: we wanted a video clip of a hurricane in action on the pearl farm … but when this happens one usually take refuge, or we wanted ”special clothing” (we could not shoot a troop of “Spanish Conquistadores” trudging through the desert) and, we have not been able of finding a professional narrator (primarily due to time constraints) for the Spanish version of the video… but the English version has superb narration.
Despite being produced in 2008 (it achieved “Gold” status on December of that year) we had the video available only on DVD throughout 2009, and it was until this year that we decided to share it publicly. The video is presented in two parts due to time constraints imposed by YouTube. The first part is a presentation of the Gulf of California Pearl:its lore and History; the second part deals with the commercial cultivation of pearls in Guaymas, Sonora. So, with no more hesitation: we hope you enjoy the video…
UPDATE (APRIL 2011): Well, YouTube has increased the time limits on videos to 15 minutes and now offers HD… so, I have been able to update the video and now you only have to click on it to watch the full version (13 minutes) in Hi-Def. Hope you like it!
We thank all those who participated directly in this beautiful project, specially the staff at “Cheque’s Films”: our good friends Ezekiel “el Cheque” Núñez and Esteban Ibarra (who were in charge of cameras and video editing); the original “Perlas del Mar de Cortez Soundtrack” was the work of Jaime Delgado Avelar, the excellent voice narration by the professional narrator Charlie Bloomer, and photos taken by yet another good friend, Alberto “el Gordo” Tirado. Another couple of good video details provided by our friend Benito Sarmiento (thank you for allowing us to use your videocam and “underwater casing” as well as for lending us your aerial video of Bacochibampo Bay), and finally, the great 3-D work of the “Spanish Galleon” done by Abraham Castro of “Onix” fame. In all, this video was fully made in Guaymas, Sonora.
The script for the video was produced by us (“pearl trio”), in addition to some video footage and photos that we did and incorporated into it.
Additional thanks? Sure! There are many people who we would like to give special thanks, and amongst them we have:
“The Yaqui Diver”/Adrian Amarillas Casillas, our friends Rocio Mendoza and Diana Alvarez, as well as to Karla Valdez, Sergio Farell -our friend and former mentor- the “Tec de Monterrey” for showing faith in our school project and, of course, our group of “Yaqui Workers” led by Jesus “el Pipi” Valenzuela.
I invite you to please leave your comments … I know that in order to leave a comment you are required to use an e-mail account, but for those who do not want to leave a comment because you will “need” to use your e-mail, you can do the following: there is no need to enter a real email … instead use this fake e-mail email@example.com (“copy & paste” and place in the appropriate field) and you will see that it is not necessary to use your personal mail.
See you next week!
Once more we are here, sharing our thoughts and hearts with you…hoping you will allow us to guide you into the history of the Gulf of California Pearl. I hope you find the story of Dr. Gastón Vivés feats as enthralling as we did when we first learned of his existence in 1991. So this week we continue with the most important area of the “CCCyP” or “Pearl Farm”: the “Raceways” or aquaculture channels.
When flying over Isla Espíritu Santo you will easily be able to distinguish the little bay and estuary where this famous pearl farm once stood, this because you can clearly distinguish the man-made shape of the culture station. This part of Dr. Vivés’ operation was a special as all others, but this one is the one most people can see, touch and easily comprehend in its operation. After almost 100 years of abandonment, harsh weather and even hurricanes, this area is still in good condition but slowly being overtaken by the mangrove forest.
This little “ensenada” or harbor has a small mangrove forest growing in typical estuarine fashion: you have a little inland lagoon with its sides all covered with mangrove trees. Gastón Vivés must have “cleared” some of the mangrove forest in order to improve the pearl culture environment, because pearl oysters are not commonly found inside these lagoons. The problems you usually have when you work in an estuary such as this one are the following:
- Increased salinity levels during summer months
- Decreased salinity levels after the rainy season
- Higher/Lower temperatures than those in the ocean
- Reduced oxygen levels.
- Lots and lots of mosquitoes and some terrible little -almost invisible- bugs we call “jejenes” (No-see-ems???)
But on the other hand you also have important benefits such as:
- Higher than average productivity levels (food)
- Easier handling of animals in shallower water
- Secluded area, easier to protect
So, it is obvious Dr. Vives decided to remove a portion of the mangrove forest and use it to grow his black-lipped pearl oysters (Pinctada mazatlanica) instead. It is hard to know if they dredged the bottom of the lagoon in order to remove the usually black-muck (highly organic mud) that is commonly associated with these forests. It could have been, but maybe they just closed the communication between the ocean and the lagoon…then they cut the trees, allowed the bottom to dry and have workers remove the anoxic muck and then prepare the bottom with more adequate conditions such as “tepetate” rock. This also gave them time to work with the masonry.
I can imagine this was a very intense workload for those involved. Why? Let us go back to 1890 and imagine that the World was different: sailboats on the remotest part of Mexico, a desert island with little or no food and fresh-water available, high temperatures of 45 Celsius (over 120 Fahrenheit) during midday, poisonous snakes and arthropods, mosquitoes, no medical help…you can keep adding it up. So, you not only needed workers, but logistics that are similar to those needed to fight battles and win wars: those that cannot supply their armies are the ones that will loose. And it was an army that Gastón Vivés had to take care of: at the height of the farm’s operation it is said it had over 1,200 men working on the Island.
So, among all the things he had to do is have his workers build barracks and other areas needed to establish and serve a large contingent of people. The docking area would have been important as well, because you need constant transportation of people and goods from La Paz to Espíritu Santo, and drinking water would have been a problem (although several fresh -and some briny- water springs are identified on the island). In order to obtain meat, goats were introduced and allowed to forage the desert shrubbery…something that nowadays is considered an “ecological nightmare” (but in those days the notion of “ecology” was non-existent). Once the whole site was constructed it would no longer be the peaceful island but a noisy bustling place of activity (heck! we’ve got towns in the “sierra” that have only some 88 people… and this place had hundreds of workers!): cooks cooking, iron-smiths bashing iron, carpenters nailing planks, divers, packagers…everything but plumbers and electricians.
The Nursery System
About the Masonry work: marvelous. He had great stone-smiths (for a lack of a better word) that -in my opinion- were serious artists and cared about quality. They used dark/red volcanic rocks to form the canals. Their amazing masonry work looks quite sturdy in most places, but the roots of the mangrove are slowly destroying them…
Inside the canals or water-channels it was possible to see some fish darting in and out (usually the common “Lisa” or “Mullet”), as well as an aggressive little Blue-Crab (Callinectes bellicosus). The water is mainly murky-green: thick and rich with nutrients. The water is shallow and has very little movement, the bottom seems more sandy instead of the black pudding-like muck you find at other estuaries (maybe I just needed to stand there until I sank…but did not have much time).
This place would have looked somewhat different some 100 years ago, because this part of the farm was entirely covered: it had a great “palapa” roof made with palm fronds (I did not see a single palm tree here, so the fronds would have been transported from the mainland as with most other things such as wood) and wood beams (very much like the palapa we employ at our Guaymas pearl farm today).
The reason for these roofs is simple: the sun is strong at this latitude and it warms the water; warmer water usually holds less oxygen and some creatures can suffocate… so, just add some shade and the water’s temperature will be cooler. Smart man. In winter you would have the opposite problem (cold water) so you can remove the palm covering and the water will warm up.
This raceway or canal system was very important because it was the “nursery system”, the place were the delicate little juvenile black-lips would be kept under constant surveillance. Why? Well, he did choose a lagoon…and these are well stocked with blue-crabs and these just adore little oysters for their “botana” (tastier than nachos). So, guards were places on top of the canals, armed with fork-like lancers and ready to defend the little pearl oysters. But many other creatures could have wanted to enjoy a free lunch as well: but mainly the octopus, snails and starfish.
The canals had wooden planks to allow the guards to move easily from one place to another and chase the intruders. Also, when the water from the canals was taken out (during the low tide) people would be able to jump inside and work with the animals, perform close inspection and even remove some predators that could have escaped from the guard’s watchful gaze.
The bottom was “conditioned” as I mentioned before, but the little juveniles were not left on the bottom just sitting. Nope. This was all worked out in detail. The little oysters were introduced inside small metal mesh cages, shaped like rectangles. We found the remains of several of these cages at the island…all oxidized, but of course plastic was unavailable in those days.
These juvenile oysters were obtained using special “spat collectors” (of a special design, and we will talk of these in the near future), and the little creatures must have measured some 3 cm (about 1 inch) when caught.
At this stage, the oysters are quite delicate because their shells are not hard enough to protect them and they have a special “anchoring” system (the bissus) they employ to grab a hold of a rock or coral and it is quite delicate: you should never pull them. Also, their small body size does not give the oyster enough protection from sudden temperature changes (they can heat easily under sunlight, and if placed rapidly in cold water the shock can kill them)… so it seems very likely Dr. Gastón Vivés’ medical training might have given him a very sound foundation to understand the oysters and give them the best possible conditions to improve their growth and survival.
By means of the mesh cages, it was easy to handle many oysters at once and protect them from most predators and he would have been able to reduce mortality rates to very tolerable levels (5-20%) at an age when -if you don’t do the right things- you can have a mortality rate of up to 80%.
Truly a revolutionary man and way ahead of his time… let us continue with this account in the coming weeks. In the meantime, you can watch a small video about our visit to this historical site. The video has titles in Spanish only, but if you read this entry you will be able to grasp the meaning…I will add sub-titles to the video in the future.
And now we will continue with last month’s story about our visit to ruins of the World’s first pearl farm and we will go and revisit each area step by step.
Our boat came to rest on the beach, but not a sandy beach but more of a rocky beach full of large oval-shaped water tumbled rocks that make walking quite difficult. Any of you that have visited the local beaches of “Las Saladitas” and “Piedras Pintas” in Guaymas will understand what I mean: the rocks just slide from under your feet and may make you fall. Our boat remained in the water, in an area that once had some concrete and rock slabs that were used as a ramp for loading and unloading boats and other aquaculture equipment.
And it is quite interesting to notice that even tough the ramps are not there anymore (maybe underneath many kilos of rocks there could be something) -or they are simply not noticeable- you can still find indications of their whereabouts thanks to the useful tool known as “Google Earth”. Yes, if you examine the satellite images from Ensenada de San Gabriel you can see some areas -inside the ocean- where some lines are perpendicular to the coastline: one of these being the ramps -they had a lot of use, because they were needed for the farm’s aquaculture operations and to provide food and water to the thousand employees they had on this desolate island.
Another thing of interest is that, after almost a Century of abandonment and being exposed to countless hurricanes, you can clearly what is left of masonry work and even of the more modest wooden buildings.
Walking to our right (to the west of our landing site), at about some 100 meters from the coastline we found a heavily impacted land area: scarce vegetation, some “Chivato” bushes (Calliandra sp) and “Choya Cactii” (Opuntia sp), a marked difference with the typical Sonoran desert vegetation found in the surrounding area: large columnar cactii -mainly Organ-Pipe catus and Barrel Cactus- and spiny shrubbery. Clearly, this land was compacted for use as sheds, shaded storage area and maybe even for barracks for the farm’s workers.
This small video (part 1) of our visit to the farm may give you better insight:
For the most part, the storage sheds must have been built with commercial wood (which we found in a very deteriorated state, possibly cedar wood) with the roofs being built with palm fronds and/or wood planks. What was stored under these? You can imagine that many were used to house your average tools, such as axes, saws, mallets, etc., one of them must have been a small forge to produce nails and work on chains and cages, some used for living quarters and cooking, but what was the purpose of this unique farm? To produce a valuable commodity: mother-of-pearl shell (MOP). We have fist hand information (from writings by Dr. Vivés himself) that shed some light on this beautiful natural product (plastic became an alternative for MOP shell, thus many nacre/MOP producing regions closed-down).
The MOP produced at this farm came from the farm-raised Black-Lipped Pearl Oysters (Pinctada mazatlanica). The company had 4 different grades (or qualities) for MOP shell. This is the information they provided at the end of the Mexican Revolution as to the value for MOP at the International markets:
- “Extra” Grade: made up of large shell (over 15 cm in diameter), with very regular/uniform shapes, without spotting nor drill-worm holes.Valued at $1,000 USD per metric ton.
- “First” Grade: shells with sizes between 9 to 14 cm, without spotting nor holes. Valued at $400 USD/ton.
- “Second” Grade: mainly small shells (sizes between 7 to 9 cm) and “clean” (no spots nor holes), but also mixed in with larger shells (9-15 cm) but with defects and imperfections. Valued at $200 USD/ton.
- “Third” Grade: Mainly consisting of broken shells or with shells with considerable damage (spots & holes) in at least 50% of its surface. Valued at less than $100 USD/ton.
We did find evidence of MOP shell mounds throughout the entire area. Most of the shells having suffered from weathering effects. It is hard to say if these shells are all that was left behind after the destruction of the pearl farm in 1914, or if these are more “recent” shells (no older than 30 years) left behind by fishermen that were illegally fishing them for their pearls. The shells are brittle, have a warm coppery color and most of their protein coating (periostracum) has dissapeared…but are still beautiful and shinny.
MOP shell had a very important economic value before the use of plastic and was used intensively for the manufacture of buttons, jewelry boxes, knife/firearm handles, jewelry (cameos), chess-sets and even for traditional Asian medicine. Several places flourished economically due to this demand: Broome in Australia (using the large Silver Lip Oyster or Pinctada maxima), Muscatine in the United States of America (using many species of pearly mussels) and -of course- La Paz, Mexico.
As a matter of fact, the main economic source for the farm was the production of MOP shell…the pearls were a much welcomed by product: a gift from God or Nature. In those days only natural pearls existed (cultured pearls were in a research stage in Australia and Japan). Some sources state that the quantity of MOP shell that was exported from the Gulf of California (mind you: these figures do not include the shell that remained in Mexico) between the period comprised by the years 1580 and 1857 was of 95,000 metric tons, roughly converted to 277 tons per year. If we converted this volume to monetary value -using a 3rd grade figure- we are talking about $28,000 USD of 1910 (we would have to convert this figure to its present economic value) which is not bad for those days: $101 USD per ton or…
|$2,350.00||using the Consumer Price Index|
|$1,770.00||using the GDP deflator|
|$10,100.00||using the unskilled wage|
|$15,100.00||using the Production Worker Compensation|
|$12,900.00||using the nominal GDP per capita|
|$43,100.00||using the relative share of GDP|
I would personally stick with the “Unskilled wage” indicator… but would really appreciate hearing from others and see if we can come up with a better figure or even for a “real market price” for MOP these days.
Let us try some math here again. This pearl farm (CCCyP ) is said to have had between 8 to 10 million black-lip oysters under culture conditions. Documents from the farm and Dr. Gastón Vivés state that the annual harvest consisted of some 5 million oysters. An average 4 year-old shell measures some 12 cm in diameter and weighs 10 grams and each organism has two of these (=20 grams of MOP per oyster), thus if we extrapolate we will have 200 kilos per thousand oysters, so 1 million oysters might have produced 200,000 kilos and multiplied by 5 we get 1,000 tons of MOP per year. Of course, this information is not accurate because we lack information on the percentage of shell that was discarded due to low-quality (and some other figures that would help have a better price estimate, such as the percentage of their sizes and their grades) but what I want you to NOTICE is how this one farm could have been able to supply the entire export of MOP shell and the domestic market as well, WITHOUT fishing out the local pearl beds.
A pearl farm can indeed have a positive impact on the local environment if managed in a sustainable manner.
On this occasion I would like to talk about the experience that Enrique and I had whilst visiting the ruins of what once used to be the First Commercial Pearl Farm in the World. My friends Enrique and Manuel always mention that this farm was more of a “Mother-of-Pearl Shell farm” than a true “Pearl Farm”…but I have always considered this to be the World’s first Pearl Farm and -perhaps- you may concur with me after you read the entire thread, which I will separate into sections, with this one as an Introduction. Let us begin with this new story.
On July 24th, 2009, we had the opportunity to travel to La Paz, Lower California, in order to be at the most important gathering of Mexican pearl farmers and researchers. This meeting being one of many to follow and promoted by the Federal Fisheries Administration (Instituto Nacional de la Pesca). The reason for the meeting? To establish a new regulatory scheme in order to protect our native pearl oysters -on the coasts of the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico/Caribbean Sea- from unethical human intervention: no more fisheries, avoid the introduction of exotic pearl oysters and displacement of genetic populations, and -very importantly- find a way to maintain our Quality standards and avoid the hazards that have plagued other pearl-producing regions like Tahiti or the Cook Islands. We will write about this subject in a future post…right now I am detouring.
So, once more on the path, we visited La Paz…and it was necessary to take the time for our pilgrimage to the ruins of the greatest Mexican pearling emporium.
Using the services of a local tour operator –”Espíritu & Baja Tours“- we enjoyed a most pleasant trip to the Island of Espíritu Santo, just outside the Bay of La Paz.We arrived at the “Ensenada de San Gabriel” and you could immediately notice that the calm & clear waters are a perfect place for raising Black-Lipped Pearl Oysters (Pinctada mazatlanica): the beautiful white sand contrasting with what seemed to be large emerald green rocks, but are in reality a normal Gulf of California inhabitant: the Porites coral. Our local black-lip has commonly been associated with these corals.
It is more than likely that the man that selected this site as propitious for a sustainable pearl farming venture was none other than the famous Dr. Joseph Gastón Vivés Gouyorieux, a Mexican citizen of French ancestry and the main promoter of the once famous “Compañía Criadora de Concha y Perla”. I will not spend time on a biography of this very notable individual, because this has already been done and because I simply do not have the time for this…our intentions are to describe our findings at this often forgotten historical site. The first “man-made” features we might recognize from the photos are the zig-zag pattern of the “aquaculture-channels” (I would call them “raceways”), that are being reclaimed by the mangrove forest (that we found in excellent health!). Another area is almost barren and with just mounds of sea-shells, rusted metal remains, and dried wood remains. We will talk about each area -and our findings- individually and in different posts.
BUT, before we proceed with the details I would like to jot down my general impression of the site. SILENCE…blessed silence that seems to permeate into every detail, silence that seems to drown the sound of your footsteps…similar as to when you enter an ancient temple and you feel that it demands respect from you: leave it all as it is, do not disturb our slumber…similar to what I once felt when visiting the old graveyard in Álamos, Sonora, but without the aggressive sensation. Yes, it felt very much like a cross-less graveyard, with only porous mounds of shells, rusted metal and decaying wood to serve as gravestones. Everything at Peace, and, there we were…disturbers of this peace, like treasure hunters, but instead of searching for pearls and treasure we were looking for questions and answers…the kind of “treasure” that would not elicit much response from a text-book historian, but that to Us represents wisdom, cunning and a part of our almost forgotten regional lore.
Until the next post…
At this point we proceed by furthering details about the Virgin’s pearl. It has been described as a large oval shaped silver-white pearl. But we know so little about this pearl, not even its real size (we guessed it at 12 mm)…its origin is important because the people of Oaxaca want to replace everything to the most minute detail.
We know that the gold and the gemstones were all donated by local families -some of them very wealthy but many were also very poor- and since her original coronation took place in 1909 we have just a couple of leads here:
- The Pearl was a Natural pearl.
- The pearl was an Imitation (fake) pearl.
- The Pearl was NOT a Cultured Pearl.
Let us consider the possibilities now:
We know that Oaxaca’s coasts were used by the natives to obtain natural black pearls and one important reason for the Spanish conquistador’s military invasion to Oaxaca was its abundance of pearls. So, the pearl could have been a Natural Pearl fished from a large Black-Lipped Oyster (Pinctada mazatlanica), and gifted by a wealthy Lady or by a poor local fisherman.
In 1909 Mexico was still one of the World’s main supplier of natural black pearls. As a matter of fact, the world’s only commercial pearl shell farm was located in La Paz, in the lower California peninsula, and was owned by a Mexican-French Doctor by the name of José Gastón Vivès. His farm raised some 8-10 million pearl oysters and he had some 800 permanent workers (more about this farm in future posts). So, the pearl could have been secured at this site.
We don’t believe it was a fake or artificial pearl either. Why? Consider the facts: She is the Patron Saint of Oaxaca, she is a Queen in her own right. She is given 15 kilos of Gold for her crown and attire…emeralds, rubies and pearls. Would you bring her a faux pearl? Certainly not!!!
It was certainly NOT a cultured pearl because in those days -1909- Kokichi Mikimoto’s cultured pearl production was incipient and mainly devoted to the production of Mabe or Blister pearls. The oyster Mikimoto was using was the Akoya-gai (Pinctada imbricata), a very small pearl oyster that was -originally- only able of producing very small pearls (for today’s standards): 3 to 8 millimeters at the most.
So, this basically means the pearl was Mexican. The people of Oaxaca needed a suitable pearl for their Queen…and this is where another connection is made.