A recurring image I have had in my mind for the last couple of months is that of a drowned man floating in the sea. Grim dream, to say the least. And in connection with this dream, just a few weeks ago I was looking for information on the Smithsonian Museum (will tell the reason in aun upcoming entry) and there I found this photo of a sculpture of one Benjamin Paul Akers, called "The Dead Pearl Diver" and I felt like it was time to talk about the pearl fisheries in Mexico’s Northwestern region and give my try at the legends of the Yaqui pearl divers, including the famous legend of "El Mechudo" (or “The Long Haired One”), which I once wrote about in our official website.
But before touching the subject of legends and myths, let us first talk about facts.
The pearl fisheries in Baja California Sur and Sonora
The Pearl fisheries in Northwestern Mexico depended mainly on the use of Yaqui pearl divers, a native nation of Sonora. At the time when the legend of "El Mechudo" appears into history, many Yaqui were had rebelled against the governments of Sonora and Mexico. The President of Mexico, General Porfirio Diaz – ordered the arrest of all rebellious Yaquis and had them sent off to work at the haciendas of the far off State of Yucatan … and hence comes the name of this sector within the City of Guaymas, Sonora, known as "la Yucatan": this was once a “prisoner camp”, from which the yaqui were sent to Yucatan. This dark period of our regional and national history is known as the "Guerra del Yaqui". Many Yaquis were sent to work for the owners of the pearl fishing fleets of Sonora and Baja California Sur. We are therefore in the period that marks the end of the 19th century and the beginning of 20th.
In those years, the pearl fishery was an important part of the economy of Baja California Sur but was somewhat less for Sonora (which was already had a more diversified economy), but most of the revenue ended up benefiting a few families: that of the shipowners. The divers obtained work, a roof in a barrack and a few meals, and a very dangerous work environment.
In this situation, it is easy to understand the great enmity that existed between these two groups of Mexicans: the "white" or "Yoris" and the Yaquis . This created for a tense working releationship: how could the men in charge of the fishing crews (usually a “Yori”) give his men (Yaqui) knives for the extraction of the pearl oysters? The knives could easily have been used to cut their hearts out!
But, how could the Yaqui divers protect themselves from the attack of the fearsome sharks?!?! Some sources mention that divers were armed with a sort of "wooden stick" (a stave, which could have also been used to kill a person in true Van Helsing fashion); other authors state that the death of divers due to shark attacks was overrated, so it is very likely that in many occassions divers did not employ any defensive device, altough Vicente Calvo mentions several of the dangers afflicting the pearl divers of Sonora in the 1840′s:
… But the Manta-rays, would quickly throw themselves over them (the divers), and would compress them against the bottom and then they would drown within minutes.
Being truthful: I do not think the latter is possible. I have never seen or heard of a Manta-ray performing this type of maneuver; but if a diver actually believed that his death could happen if attacked by one of these fish, then he might go into a "panic attack" and end up drowning due to his own fears.
Pearl Fishing was carried out from a "mothership" from which descended several small boats, each with 2 to 4 men, and thus they managed to cover most of a fishing area of a "pearl bed”. Divers dressed only with a loincloth, and would throw themselves from the boat, some helped with primitive weigh-stones to help them quickly reach the bottom. We can watch this activity when watching the classic Mexican film "La Perla", if you don’t have access to the movie you can also watch this short video that contains a few segments of the movie (watch the action at around 1 minute & 25 seconds):
The divers descended to depths between 2 and 26 meters ( 6-86 feet) to find their catch of pearl oysters. Sometimes the physical exhaustion caused by continuous fishing (they dived for up to 6 hours daily) and lack of drinking water and food (did you perhaps believe that divers received an adequate nutrition?) caused some to lose consciousness and drown.
Again we have the description of Vicente Calvo on the pearl fishery of Sonora (and I place emphasis here, as many people believe still that only Baja California had a major pearl fishery):
Fishing starts in June and ends in October, using two or three boats from 40 to 60 tons each. In early November, these boats begin to arrive at the Port of Guaymas… the average time spent by the diver underwater is of one and a half minutes, but in such a short dive-time each divers collects many oysters.
Pearl fishing in the Sonoran coast began when the waters warmed enough and stopped when it is cooled off. The Gulf of California is a sub-tropical sea, so we have ample temperature differences between summer (with 32/90 degrees Celsius/Fahrenheit on the surface) and during winter we have recorded up to 12/53 degrees Celsius/Fahrenheit here in Bacochibampo Bay). Unfortunately, this pearl fishing period also coincided with the breeding season of the "Panamic Black-lip Pearl Oyster" (Pinctada mazatlanica), so that the effects of fishing were doubly harmful to the populations of this particular pearl oyster.
Another interesting description of Vicente Calvo states that:
All divers feel -at the beginning of each task- how blood flows from their noses, and they see this as a good sign, and will continue –happier- with their work, which lasts no more than six hours.
And this brings us to another reference to the hardships associated with fishing for pearls, but this time by an British Lieutenant by the name Robert William Hale Hardy, who in the 1820’s visited various spots within the of Sea of Cortez -including Guaymas- and he even dived for pearls at the bay of Mulege, and so he states about this occassion:
…I felt myself gliding through the slippery water, which, from its density, gave one the idea of swimming through a thick jelly; again I experienced the same change of temperature in the water as I descended; and again the agonizing sensation in my ears and eyes made me waver. But now, reason and resolution urged me on, although every instant the pain increased as I descended; and at the depth of six or seven fathoms, I felt a sensation in my ears like that produced by the explosion of a gun; at the same moment l lost all sense of pain, and afterwards reached the bottom, which I explored with a facility which I had thought unattainable.
…I no sooner found myself on the surface than I became sensible of what had happened to my ears, eyes, and mouth; I was literally bleeding from each of these, though wholly unconscious of it. But now was the greatest danger in diving, as the sharks, mantas, and tintereros, have an astonishingly quick scent for blood.
R.W.H. Hardy. Travels into the Interior of Mexico in 1825,1826,1827 and 1828.
This was really a risky profession in many ways, and divers would find their lives shortened and their health compromised… in the above cases we can see that the diver’s body is subject to a bleeding nose and the bursting of their eardrums…or even being drowned or devoured.
The Legend of "El Mechudo"
This is probably one of my favorite stories or legends which references to the pearl fisheries in our area, and it’s a very Mexican –and Sonoran and Lower Californian- legend. This story has been described in several other sources, including the blog of my friend Benjamin Arredondo, author of one of my favorite blogs "El Bable". However, I think there are things that should be reconsidered within this legend and then reinterpreted so that it has more shades of reality… and what do I mean by this? There are certain details that make the story quite unrealistic at some points, but by re-focusing these it can turned into a real story.
Well, so far I’ve written a lot about the fisheries… and nothing of the legend. So, this is waht author Fernando Jordan mentions about a site near La Paz known as "Punta El Mechudo" (“Long-Haired One Point”):
Southwest of San Jose Island and 12 km from ‘Amortajada bay’ and at the end of last century (19th) there existed a pearl bed that was a good producer of pearls, and on which hundreds of divers gathered every year. At the end of each season, before the cold north winds made diving impossible, the fishermen would prepare to take one last dive to offer a pearl to the Virgin’. On one occasion a diver was preparing to jump into the sea for the last time, when someone warned him from attempting it, he shouted:
‘No more do you need to dive. We already have the pearl of the Virgin’
The fisherman, made a gesture of disdain, and replied scornfully:
‘I am not going after the pearl of the Virgin, I’ll get one for the devil.
And he jumped into the water.
Satan took him to the sea-floor, and the fisherman did not reappear nor did the sea return his body. This place is now taboo, and no one goes there to look for pearls. Those who have, state that they found -at the very bottom- the blaspheming diver’s ghost, who has grown long hair and a huge beard and a long tongue. It seems alive, and in his hands it holds a huge mother-of-pearl shell. It is the ‘pearl of the devil’ they say, and because of the long-haired ghost the place has been given the name ‘El Mechudo’.
Fernando Jordan “El Otro México”, 1967
This is –if it can be called this way- the “official version” of the legend, and as you’ve read, it is also known as the "Legend of the Devil’s Pearl". In the next blog entries I will begin to “break down” this legend, and will hopefully come up with an alternative ending for the legend, but the next entry deals with this issue of the “Virgin’s Pearl”.
Until next time!
On December, 2010, we had an unexpected visitor to our farm: Richard D. Fisher, author of some of my favorite books about Mexico’s Copper Canyon and the Sea of Cortez, such as: “National Parks of Northwest Mexico”, and his latest “Copper Canyon: Chihuahua, Mexico”. Not only is the information on the books interesting and quite accurate, but they also have valuable historical, geological and ethnographic information and EXCELLENT PHOTOS. So, you may imagine my surprise when I met Richard in a Bus Tour group from our friends at “A Closer Look Tours”…I was honored to take the whole group to a complete tour of our pearl farm and –as usual- answer our visitor’s questions regarding the subject of pearls (one of these days I will write a Blog-post with the most common and interesting questions we’ve been asked), and guess who asked one of the “best questions” we’ve been asked over the years? Yes, it was Richard D. Fisher indeed, and the question was: “Did the Japanese really Poison the Sea of Cortez’s Pearl Beds in the 1940’s???”
Let us ponder on this story, so let us go back to the early years of the 20th Century…
From 1900 to 1920:
In those days, the Mexican Pearl Fisheries were still quite active throughout the Gulf of California, but mainly around the Southern tip of the Lower California peninsula (Baja California Sur), with La Paz acting as the main pearl trade-hub. Skin divers were still very much active in the fisheries, but after several hundreds of years of “pearling”, the pearl beds had become less plentiful, thus a new breed of diver was needed: the Helmeted Diver. And these were few in numbers but could work for hours and could go deeper than the typical skin diver, thus it was possible to find larger –older- oysters in deeper waters and fetch some larger pearls.
At the same moment, Dr. Gastón Vivés had his farm up and running quite successfully until 1914 when it was destroyed by the “Constitutionalist Army” during the Mexican Revolution. And from this moment on, the only pearls that could be obtained from these waters were the 100% natural pearls from wild-caught oysters (as opposed to the natural pearls from farm-raised oysters from Dr. Vivés’ black lip farm). And you may imagine that during a civil war people become even more impoverished and will have to resort to sacking their most valuable natural resources in order to obtain funds to sustain them…and this is what probably happened to the pearl beds in the area once the “Pearling Companies” (mostly Mexican, but some even from Great Britain and other parts of Europe) stopped their operations during and after the Revolution.
From 1921 to 1940:
This is a particularly bleak period for the pearl fisheries. The beds on the Baja California side had become commercially exhausted (meaning: no sense in fishing them anymore), but had time to “revive” on the mainland side (mainly in Sonora and Sinaloa). A couple of areas were particularly good “placeres” (name given to places were a given resource is abundant): the waters in front of Caborca and those around “Isla Tiburón”, were the fishery was conducted by the Seri Indian Nation. But in any case, the pearls were on the brink of becoming a legend…then, complete disaster struck the area: in 1939 a “mysterious disease” was traveling from the northern part of the Gulf of California, moving southwards and killing every single black lipped pearl oyster, leaving just empty shells which were identified by the local fishermen due to their silvery shine…
By 1940 the few remaining pearl beds in the Gulf had been decimated and the Cortez Pearl became the newest addition to the vast collection of Mexican fables, stories, myths and legends.
The Japanese Conspiracy Theory
In the late 1930’s most Mexican people were not really thinking of the future “space race” nor with “little green men” and had little interest in such “conspiracy theories”…but this does not mean that our fishermen lacked from imagination nor ideas. They actually began to wonder what some boats with “rising sun” flags and men from a different language and race were doing inside their Gulf…and these men seemed quite suspicious: they anchored here and dropped little devices into the water, retrieved them and then moved to another spot and repeated the process and, yet, they never seemed to fish anything! Also, instead of the friendly exchange of products (cigars, gas, bait, etc.) that they seemed to enjoy with other fishermen –regardless of nationality- these guys were overly serious and would not trade a thing!!! They must be up to some mischief indeed!!!
Back in 1939, many Mexican fishermen still remembered the importance of their pearl fisheries and considered the local pearl oysters as a useful food & shell resource that might reward them with a very valuable gem…if they were truly lucky. Some people had heard that the Japanese had begun producing cultured pearls and that they seemed to be unparalleled in their ability to produce them; still, many believed that cultured pearls were no match to the “real thing” (the natural pearl) and that Mexico would once again become a major league player in the World’s pearl markets.
So, add ingredient #1 (the presence of “tricksy” Japanese in the Gulf) and ingredient #2 (the Return of the Mexican Pearl) and you basically have created a plot, a Japanese conspiracy to POISON the Sea of Cortez and destroy any possible rival for the Japanese Cultured Pearl: the Japanese vessels were dropping poison into the pearl beds to kill their opponent before it had a chance to get back on its feet. And you wouldn’t believe how many people heard of this plot, and how many talk about it as a certifiable truth: people from Guaymas, from La Paz, from Hermosillo, from Mexico City…everyone!
Now, is there any truth in this plot? Could the Japanese have really killed off the pearl beds?
The Facts and the Myths
It is a fact that many Japanese vessels with Japanese men were in the Sea of Cortez in the late 1930’s, and they were definitively up to something, but it is highly unlikely they were sent on a mission to kill pearl oysters. Why? Because with the technology available in those days it is very unlikely they could have possessed a toxin or poison made specially to kill pearl oysters…any other poison must have killed other creatures as well: all sorts of clams, snails and maybe even fish that the fishermen would have noticed. But no it did not. Even today (2011) I am not aware of a toxin that will only kill pearl oysters…and I hope it is never invented!
So, what were the Japanese doing here if not killing oysters?!?! Well, check your timeline and you will notice that the “Pacific War” officially begun in December 17th, 1941 and Japan went into war with the United States of America, Mexico’s northern neighbor. So, could it be possible that the Japanese were taking depth measurements of areas in the Sea of Cortez??? Could they possibly have planned an attack into U.S. soil from Mexico in order to avoid the heavily defended California coast??? It does sound as a possibility…doesn’t it? Unfourtunately I don’t have any information on this subject…so let us hope that Wikileaks will produce these in a couple of years.
What caused the Mass Mortalities???
This is also an interesting subject. The “official” explanation given by the Mexican Government was that it had been caused by an unknown epidemic (epizootic disease), but they never gave any scientific proof to the fact or they just wanted an easy explanation to what seemed to be a lost cause, because from that moment on (1939) the Pearl Fishery was considered officially closed and a fishing ban was imposed on the capture or fishery of the Mexican Black Lipped Pearl Oyster (Pinctada mazatlanica).
But there were other interesting things happening at the same time, such as…the operation of the United States’ great “Hoover Dam”. Let me place a quote from Wikipedia’s here to further explain:
The changes in water use caused by Hoover Dam’s construction has had a large impact on the Colorado River Delta. The construction of the dam has been credited as causing the decline of this estuarine ecosystem. For six years, after the construction of the dam and while Lake Mead filled, virtually no water reached the mouth of the river. The delta’s estuary, which once had a freshwater-saltwater mixing zone stretching 40 miles (64 km) south of the river’s mouth, was turned into an inverse estuary where the level of salinity was higher close to the river’s mouth.
The Colorado River had experienced natural flooding before the construction of the Hoover Dam. The dam eliminated the natural flooding, which imperiled many species adapted to the flooding, including both plants and animals. The construction of the dam decimated the populations of native fish in the river downstream from the dam. Four species of fish native to the Colorado River, the Bonytail chub, Colorado pikeminnow, Humpback chub, and Razorback sucker, are currently listed as endangered.
If “Hoover Dam” began operating in 1936 and it is known that 6 years later (1942) there was no more fresh-water flowing unto the Gulf of California, then we can begin to imagine the environmental consequences. The “Colorado River” had its waters discharging into the Gulf for millions of years and then…kaput! No more water for you! So, what are the possible consequences: the impact was felt almost immediately on the Gulf’s northern region and its wetlands, but the effect had to creep down as the lack of freshwater made the Gulf of California “saltier” (the “average” salinity of the world’s ocean is 3.5%, with that of the Sea of Cortez being almost 3.6%) and a higher salinity level usually means less dissolved oxygen (which marine animals will use to breathe from the water). Besides this fact we can imagine that many other substances came with the river’s waters, including silt and many minerals…all these possibly very important to sustain a variety of marine plants and microscopic algae, creatures that are considered the basis of most marine ecosystems.
You may say “but the river’s water stopped flowing in 1942 and the oysters died in 1939!!!”, and yes…that is a fact, but the fact remains that there was less water available each year since the dam’s inauguration and by 1939 this was already causing havoc on our local ecosystems.
Have we finally pinpointed the truth to this dire plot or conspiracy theory? Not at all. I believe that there is still much to be done to reach this point, but a possibility would be that we could have indeed had a negative effect from “Hoover Dam” and this combined with the overfishing of the pearl beds and maybe we even had an epidemic or –just to make matters worse- an unknown environmental change. In any case: the Japanese are not to blame. They did not poison the Sea of Cortez to kill off a potential commercial threat.
I would also like to point out that I am in no way now blaming the American people for this disaster (we played our own part in this tragedy), and in those days (1930’s) few people knew or cared or understood how significant something like this truly was. Even now, few Nations are willing to consider Nature as a “User” of a given natural resource. In the meantime, we might speculate that our pearl oysters have had time to adapt to their “new” environment and –if given the opportunity- they will be able to repopulate our waters once more.
Here we are once more with the intention of sharing information about these beautiful marine gems. On this occasion will continue with the subject of natural pearls and specifically about how these gems are created in nature.
During the era scientific enlightenment in the late 1800′s, scientists from all over the world were searching to understand how pearl oysters were able of producing pearls, and their discoveries were fascinating. But some of the first things they discovered at to do with the internal structure of the pearl, since in order to obtain the truth it was necessary to cut open pearls and inspect their core. And what they found is that pearls are very much like onions, at least structurally.
When an onion is cut in half what we see inside are numerous concentric layers, each stacked on the previous one, and in a similar manner pearls are produced: the original seed that caused the pearl to originate will be found at its core, surrounded by millions of micron thin layers of Aragonite. Perhaps this is a reason why the ancient Greeks gave the name “Margarita” to the pearl, since this is also the word for “onion” (hence the name “Margaritifera” that was given in early times to many pearl producing mollusks, meaning “pearl bearer”) in that language.
In the above images of an onion and a natural pearl (both cut-in-half) we can see their internal resemblance, and going further into the deeper core we can also appreciate how their core is not round, but with each additional coating of nacre (in the case of the pearl) the shape becomes rounder, softer, although most natural pearls I have personally seen are rarely 100% round, most being baroque and a good proportion of them being semi-baroque in shape (mainly in the shape of buttons, bullets and drops).
But of course we do have several types of natural pearls. Many don’t look like the image that we have in our brains as being a pearl, but they are nonetheless pearls. We basically have two major groups of natural pearls: blisters and loose pearls. Of these two groups we would have subgroups as well. Let us begin with the pearls that could be considered the most common.
Perhaps some of the most common natural pearls are those usually referred as blister pearls in English, “ampollas” in Spanish or as “ampulles” in French, and we could even say that these laid the foundation for the eventual production of mabé pearls (also known as blister or half pearls). These pearls are commonly found formed on the pearl oyster’s shell, as a response from a very active “Bio-terrorist” (usually an animal that actively drills through the oyster’s shell). The reasons for this active attack on the oyster’s shell are varied and depend on the species that attacks the oyster, blister pearls being the result of the oyster’s defense mechanism against these intruders.
The varieties of organisms that “attack” the oyster’s shell are huge and include animals such as sponges, polychaete worms and drill mussels. Many of these creatures are not really after the oysters flesh, meaning there not there to actually eat the oyster but that they are actually just looking for a “home” and have been known as “domiciliares” because they usually make their homes inside the oyster’s shell and -unfortunately for the pearl oyster-these actually weaken the shell, making it really brittle and easy to break. Of course, these “Bioterrorists” will also come in direct contact with the oyster’s flesh and this interaction will almost certainly produce blister pearls.
There’s a variety of sponge known as, usually colored with a bright orange red or yellow with a sticky consistency, which grows on a large variety of shellfish here in the Sea of Cortez, and it seems to have a preference for the black-lipped pearl oyster (Pinctada mazatlanica). It can cause small lump like blisters, but I have never seen any pretty specimen of pearl caused by this sponge.
Another creature capable of causing blister pearls is the infamous drill mussel or pholids. These creatures –and here I also have to include the Cliona sponge- are actually filter feeders just like pearl oysters are, so we can be sure that they don’t attack the shell to eat the oyster’s flesh, but they have brittle shells so they need the protection of a hard substance around them. These little creatures can actually bore stone, wood as well as sea shells. We have seen numerous blister pearls formed by the attack of these agents, as well as in one loose pearl. These creatures also have a preference for black-lipped pearl oysters, but may occasionally attack older individuals of the rainbow lipped pearl oyster variety (Pteria sterna).
The group of organisms which we find more interesting in the case of pearl formation of the polychaete worms, mainly those of genus Polydora: slender worms usually with a bright red coloration. These worms have the capacity to infest pearl oysters to the point of weakening them and causing their death and in the process making the oyster produce numerous “mud blisters”, which may eventually become coated with nacre.
We have examined several varieties of the so-called mud blisters and in most instances where we have found are the remains of dead drill worms, as well as good quantities of very organic mud. It would be difficult to fully identify what causes this variety of blister pearl, but I believe that it is safe to say that it is a combination of the worm´s drilling activity and the entrance of mud due to the disappearance of the drill worm. What caused the drill worm to disappear? Well, we have also seen large numbers of predatory polychaete worms on the oyster’s shell and these may very well go after the drill worms and kill them, leaving their home vacated.
When removing a mud blister and cutting it in half we usually find a protective coating of protein secreted by the pearl oyster that that helps to coat the organic mud and that is in turn coated with nacre.
Unusual blister pearls
Some very unusual specimens have been found that include other varieties of animals as the cause, these include fish and crustaceans. Perhaps the most interesting specimen is that of a small fish that was found in the shell of a Mexican black lip pearl oyster that was fished in Baja California during the last days of the 19th century (this specimen is still kept in the American museum of natural history in New York). The fish was identified as a “pearl fish” (family Carapidae), which are usually associated with many species of clams and oysters and sea cucumbers (please use this link if you want to see an animated diagram of a pearl fish, if you’re a proctologist you will enjoy this). And although we have seen these fish inside oysters we have never had the fantastic opportunity of finding a “fish pearl”.
Pearl fish are not parasitic but instead they find shelter within the oyster’s shells. I believe most oysters would not be offended by the presence of this little fish, but in this particular case may be the little fish died and the oyster preceded to rapidly coat it with pearl or nacre, I don’t believe this could’ve ever happen with a live fish.
Other possible sources for blister pearls
Other organisms that could be turned into pearls -but that I have never seen turned into pearls- are the little shrimp and crabs that are found inside pearl oysters. The little translucent “pearl shrimp” are also found in many other species of clams, such as pen shells, and are typically found within the large Pinctada oysters. The species we find in the Sea of Cortez is Pontonia margarita, and we can usually find two individuals within an oyster (one male and one female, the male usually being the smaller of the two), this species does not seem to affect the pearl oyster.
Another type of crustacean we have seen inhabiting the oyster’s body is the “pea crab”; these little crabs are somewhat soft and quite clumsy, no wonder they need the protection they find inside an oyster’s shell. These little crabs have only been reported as found living inside the Australian silver lip pearl oyster (Pinctada maxima), but the Sea of Cortez has a variety that is only found within the rainbow lipped pearl oyster (Pteria sterna) and this will be the first time this will be reported in writing. The name of this species is still unknown (Pinnotheres sp.) and we usually only find one inside an oyster. We have seen some crabs causing a disturbance within the oyster that could eventually lead to the production of blister pearls, but we have yet to find a “crab pearl”.
So, what do you think about all the life-forms that depend or use a pearl oyster -in a way or another- for their survival? Life is indeed a web, and if you can save one species you will be offering an “umbrella” of protection for many others…
In our next chapter will continue talking about natural pearls and their possible origins, in the meantime I will continue hunting for additional facts and -of course- searching for more mythical pearls: I can clearly see myself wearing a pea crab pearl pendant.
We want to share with you the experience of having achieved the production of two unique -exceptional- pearl necklaces made from pearls produced at our farm in Bay Bacochibampo, Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico.
Both necklaces –one made of loose cultured pearls and the other from keshi pearls- are made using pearls produced by the native Pearl Oyster known locally as “Concha Nácar”, also known as the “Rainbow-lip Pearl Oyster” or by its scientific name Pteria sterna. If you have checked any world pearl production data, you will find that this is the only commercial farm in the world that employs a pearl oyster of the genus Pteria. So, all other pearl farms of the world use the so-called “mother-of-pearl oysters”, which belong to genus Pinctada. Thus, simply because of their rarity, a necklace made of pearls from the “Rainbow-lip Pearl Oyster” is really a very special piece, completely out of the ordinary.
Finally, we could talk with technicalities about the beauty of these pearls… that their Orient or overtones are exceptional, that their chroma or color saturation is simply out of the ordinary, that their natural luster is very high, but I think that anything that is said about these two necklaces simply PALES before what we can capture with our eyes… so we offer some beautiful pictures of these items, and you… you will be the one to decide whether they are beautiful and exceptional pieces.
“Bacochibampo” Pearl Necklace
Previously known as the “Bicentennial” necklace, but once it passed into the hands of its new owners it received it’s new – and very proper- name: Bacochibampo. This is a word which means “Bay of the Seven-headed Snake” and refers to an ancient Yaqui legend (of which we will talk in the future). It is also the name of the beautiful Bay in which we culture these pearls, thus we found its name to be more than appropriate.
This necklace consists of 41 cultured pearls, but if you recall (see this note) the necklace originally had 43 pearls, but the “missing pearls” were used to make a beautiful pair of earrings to go with this incredible piece.
Additionally, it gives great pleasure to say that this necklace found its residence in Mexico, adding to the number of Cortez pearl necklaces in Mexico to 4 (1 more needed to equal the number of necklaces found in other countries).
“Mares Lucis” Necklace
Whose name evokes the natural phosphorescence which we enjoy in a warm and dark summer night. This is our first great necklace but made with Keshi pearls. It was made at the request of a client in the US and it turned out to be a very pleasant task.
This necklace has 61 Keshi pearls harvested between the years 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. It is a graduated necklace, which means that the size of the pearls gradually decreases from the Central Pearl – of greater size – towards the rear. The sizes of the keshis vary between 3.9 and 6.7 (central) mm.
It was truly a privilege to work in the production of these unique pieces of jewelry. These are durable pieces that are meant to become true family heirlooms. For us the making of these necklaces meant:
1. That we took care of at least four different generations of pearl oysters (2005-2008), each one being looked after for a period of 4 years (this means 12 years of care, work and dedication).
2. The operation of thousands of pearl oysters, so that of these thousands only 1% would give us enough Gem quality pearls, in the sizes and shapes required for the production of these jewelry items.
3. A selection process that involves saving the best pearls from each year’s harvest, so we can have the pearls needed to produce one pearl necklace of this quality, every year.
So when they ask us if we cannot simply make another necklace like these we have to say: “We’d Wish!”… And hopefully next year we also have the opportunity and privilege to produce another necklace like these two… never identical, always unique, but of this same Quality.
The only that remains for me to do is to invite you to watch a short video with additional photos of the “Bacochibampo” pearl necklace…
Natural Pearls…this small phrase can mean different things depending on which portion of the food chain you are located in, so it can either mean utter nacreous ecstasy or feverish anger. Whatever your feelings are, every year we have the fortune of finding a few natural pearls within our farm-raised “Rainbow Lipped Pearl Oysters” (Pteria sterna). This quantity varies tremendously depending on environmental conditions (although some people have gone far to suggest that this depends solely on the actions and decisions taken by certain Political Party members…but no, it is certainly not the case) and the way these conditions become more propitious for the development of certain bio-elements (just a fancy word for “little water bugs”) that are normally found in our oceans.
For us, 2007 was an astounding year in Natural Pearl production, whereas 2008 & 2009 were not very productive in yield, but we did find a couple of very exceptional pearls (see “The Virgin’s Pearl” account of this same Blog). This year seems to be more similar to 2007 in pearl yield and quality.
So, before we proceed with the data from this year’s natural pearl harvest, let us watch a short video on natural pearl harvesting (taken from the 2007 natural pearl harvest):
If you paid close attention to the video, you will have noticed that all natural pearls were found inside a thin, semi-translucent membrane that was attached to the oyster’s mantle. This membrane is known as the “pearl sac” and it is where the pearl develops…in the same way a baby would develop inside a womb. A similar “pearl sac” is formed to produce a cultured pearl, but in this case the pearl sac develops inside the oyster’s gonad and due to Human intervention. Thus, when we find a natural pearl it is quite a surprise (similar to when you are told your wife is expecting twins…trust me on this), there is no Human intervention in their production. To notice the differences between the harvest of natural pearls (the video above) and that of cultured pearls you can now watch this other video:
Now that you have seen both videos you can realize how differently these pearls come to see the light of day or are “born unto the world”. Another significant difference between natural and cultured pearls is their size: most naturals we obtain are in a size range between 1 to 7 mm, whereas the smallest cultured pearls we obtain measure 8.3 mm in diameter. But perhaps the most striking difference would be quantity: you always obtain many more cultured pearls than natural pearls.
In a future post we will talk more in detail about how natural pearls are produced: their incidence, what causes them to appear (a grain of sand of course!!! sure…maybe it was a politician that came up with such an answer), but for the moment I just want to post some photos of some of this year’s natural pearls…let us begin!
This “cute” little natural pearl has quite some personality. Measuring 1 cm at its widest, it has the shape of a toon-like tortoise, complete with a little eye.
It is not the prettiest natural pearl we’ve harvested here, but it now belongs into a select group of “unconventional” pearls we’ve found, such as: doves, cats, hearts, aliens (pretty certain it was a so called “Gray“) and the “American Classic”: Mickey Mouse.
The next pearls are much more beautiful, but more “pearl shaped”, and by this I don’t mean “round”. Very few natural pearls we’ve harvested (out of hundreds in our 16+ years of work) have been perfectly round, and those that have this shape are usually very small (less than 2 mm).
Now we have a pair of “good sized” (7 mm diameter) baroque shaped natural pearls, slightly flattened (something quite normal in natural pearls). Their main color is dark so they would be considered “black pearls”…a term that I don’t particularly like because the Gulf of California Pearl is much more colorful. The one to the right has a red-wine coloration (probably Pinot Noir) and the one to the left has a blue-green-violet coloration.
Now, we have a pair of pearl trios. The first one in sizes around 5 mm in diameter, but I believe they are even more beautiful than the larger ones: truly a case of “Bigger is not necessarily more Beautiful”. And the following trio (in sizes of 3 mm) are even more striking: some pearls even display the much coveted and desired “Fish Eye” effect.
These little pearls have very strong overtones, the one in the center having the most intense “fish eye” effect.
And to wrap it up for today…a beautiful pair of 8 mm natural pearls with very different colors: one is light gray with a strong violet overtone, the other one has a dark electric-blue coloration. One reason why pearls were known as “Unios” in the Latin language of Ancient Romans is because they were clearly unique, distinctive. These natural pearls are truly deserving of such name…but their Gulf of California Cultured Pearl counterparts are just as unique as their famous predecessor…you will not find any “Clonios” around here.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org (“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.
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…
Well now, 2010 has finally arrived…this year at least promises much more “excitement” than last year. We do wish you all a great new year… and I hope we’ll have more time on our hands to write down many more stories that we’ve had the intention of sharing, but in the meantime an update on the “Virgin’s Pearl”:
1) On December 18th, 2009, we found another Natural Pearl. Yep! And this one was the ONLY natural pearl we were able of harvesting from our farm-raised Rainbow Lipped Oysters (Pteria sterna). We caught the moment on video and have shared it on YouTube.
Once more, just like in 2008 and in the same day: the Day of the Virgin of the Solitude of Oaxaca. This pearl measures 8.5 x 8.7 mm (diameter), and weighs in at 0.9 grams. Not exactly a huge pearl, nor was it perfect…but there is too much a coincidence there.
2) The Virgin’s new gold & gem studded attire is almost ready for her new “coronation”. Our friends from Oaxaca were kind enough to send us some photos of our pearl (have to get used to say “Her Pearl”) on its brand new gold setting. It looks very nice…an excellent job!
This week I would like to share some of our experiences with hurricanes. I know that most people that live on the coastlines of the Atlantic and Pacific rim have experienced the destructive force of a hurricane or typhoon. Who can forget 2005′s “Katrina” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Katrina) or “Wilma” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Wilma)??? Their destructive force became legendary…
But in most instances the media usually focuses on Human losses, acts of heroism or savagery, economic distress, etc. On this occasion we will only talk about the effect of hurricanes on pearls, and by this I mean the pearl oysters, pearl farms and farmers and even “Pearl Shops” (or stores). Since our experience with pearl farming dates only as far as 1991, we have been able to experience several hurricanes over the years, each one uniquely different in its effects. We also have records of similar events taking place at other places and times. Let us begin with one such account:
Pearly Joy in Guaymas
According to the late Don Manuel “el Tío” Ferreira of Guaymas, Sonora, hurricanes and tropical storms in the area caused some “pearly joy” in the 1960-1970′s because the severe tidal action would dislodge great numbers of pearl oysters from their attachment points (rocks, shells, corals, even from other oysters) and have them lay on the beach. Thus people would walk the beach of Miramar to easily obtain natural pearls. In his years of gathering natural pearls in this manner, Mr. Ferreira said he was able to fill up a large glass jar with natural pearls. Of these, only two -he said- were larger than a bean and very beautiful. Unfortunately I was never able to see more than a cup of pearls because he had given many away over the years.
I was able of experiencing this phenomena just a couple of years ago (2007) just after the arrival of hurricane “Henriette” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007_Pacific_hurricane_season#Hurricane_Henriette). I walked the shores of the place once known as “Shangri-La” (now there is a “Beach Club” there, owned by Hotel “Marinaterra”) and found hundreds of clams, mussels and pearl oysters -most still alive- just lying on this small beach.
One can only imagine that -for Centuries- the native inhabitants of the Sea of Cortez (and probably in other areas of the world) could have enjoyed similar benefits after such storms. There is such a thing as a Free Pearl and Lunch (if you eat the pearl oyster)