Here we are back again with this topic that I find increasingly interesting, due in part because I have used it as a form of catharsis, allowing me to remember one of the reasons why we started a Pearl Aquaculture project -some 17 years ago- when we were still students at the Guaymas Campus of the Tec de Monterrey. In those days, we first wanted to understand the reasons or logic surrounding the origin of natural pearls and how they are created within the pearl oysters and -of course- there was this previous “knowledge” about the origin of pearls: the mystical, magical, whimsical and musical “grain of sand theory“, which is really just another “pearl myth”.
Another Myth that Afflicts Humanity
It seems that regardless of the time period or place, this sand-grain-to-pearl myth has become very popular: it can be heard almost in any country and language. In my case my grandmother told me, when I was just a child, that pearls grew in an oyster as a result of an irritation caused by a grain of sand, so that there was no better choice for the little animal than to coat the painful and offensive particle with soft layers of nacre. I, of course, assimilated this important information and used it wherever there was an opportunity –and there were not many I must admit- until it came time to put this theory to the test.
Back in 1991, our select group of friends – including Mauricio Atl Tahuilan, Carlos Navarro Serment and Jesús Gutiérrez – had helped us to collect some 70 Pearl oysters to start off our studies on Pearl oyster reproduction and culture. Most of the oysters collected were “Black Lips” (Pinctada mazatlanica) and only a few specimens were “Rainbow Lips” (Pteria sterna), so we use some of these few animals for a very simple experiment: use sand to produce natural pearls. And the result was simply disappointing: we did not obtain a single Pearl. Zero. Zilch. Nothing. Nada. And there arose the question of why didn’t it work? Because we all know that a grain of sand will induce the production of a pearl…thus, a thousand grains of sand should be capable of allowing for the production of a thousand pearls and a million grains of sand …well, a million pearls!!! It was just so obvious and foolproof.
But it was not. As much sand as we used, we could not produce pearls. Not a single one. On the other hand, when we took a peek inside our oysters we noticed that the oysters were perfectly clean, without a trace of sand. We could not know -for real- what really happened in those days because we simply did not have the time to sit there -in front of an oyster- for some 24 straight hours. Can you imagine yourself sitting, just watching an animal that -for some people- is as interesting as a rock??? Therefore, we came up with conjectures and hypotheses, but we never quite knew what was truly happening; anyway, we were “satisfied” with our guesses. Many years have passed now since those days, and the technology to help us is now available –and is also inexpensive- to perform these small experiments…and, of course, for the “birth” of this Blog to have the motivation to write and document the experiments.
We used a small fish tank with clean seawater to introduce two “Rainbow Lipped oysters” into which we had –previously- introduce one and a half tablespoons of sand. We placed a small video camera to take a time-lapse video for the next 18 hours to record what happens to an oyster which has sand inside. The results did not astonish us, and lived up to our expectations.
After 3 hours in the tank, oysters would quickly open and close their valves, in a movement and launched a “cloud” of sand out of their bodies. This action removed a great proportion of sand from their bodies, but for the next 8 hours the oysters continued to, slowly, releases small “sand packets”. These “sand packets” consist of a sticky mucus that the oyster secretes in order to “bind” or adhere the sand, and thus it is more easy for them to remove the annoying particles. By next morning, the oysters were almost perfectly clean.
While – at first view – the oysters seemed to be clean from sand (we could see the most of the sand laying at the bottom of the tank) an oyster was sacrificed in order to inspect its body thoroughly, and we still managed to find a very small amount of sand inside. Under natural conditions, the oyster would have managed to remove all remaining sand in some additional hours, but here it was necessary to see the “mucus in action”: our video displays how the Oyster uses its mucus to catch some sand particles and helps to eliminate them.
Pearl oysters are perfectly adapted to their natural environment – the ocean – which has an inexhaustible source of sand. Because of this perfect adaptation, these lowly creatures can – very easily – remove every single annoying grain of sand from their bodies; thus, we can discard sand as being able to help produce natural pearls. In my opinion this is highly unlikely.
Thus, we hope that with the information generated by this test and the proofs on video we will help –once and for all- eliminate the false myth of the “grain of sand”. We hope that this myth will not become resurrected –a zombie of its former self- and come back to haunt us in the future… I swear that if I have to listen –once more- the question of “Is it not a grain of sand that makes the pearl?” something very, very bad, will happen …. I’m just joking: I have already been seared in the flesh –and mind and soul- with this question for years and years, so I am certain I will be able to sustain it longer (but try not to put me to the test, please).
A Blister Pearl!
While inspecting the oyster that was sacrificed for the “grain of sand experiment” I found a worm-like mud-blister pearl. Since our last blog-episode was about these pearls, and I already had the camera rigged it was just natural to make this information available for you all. So, I simply used a scalpel to break the mother-of-pearl layer on this “small tunnel” and found a small orange colored worm. It was clearly a drill-worm (genus Polydora). This discovery can be seen in the video as well.
This Blog will continue to have more information of interest to you, but probably this information will become a little more “spaced” in time, since our farming activities become intensified during the winter season and we usually spend more time at the farm than at the office (where I write the Blog).
So please do not despair, I promise more posts in the near future and do continue to visit our Blog and send your comments and suggestions.
We now commence a new blog-delivery with a new subject: pearl quality. How can we view this from the client’s standpoint? Let us ask the following questions: Why should it should I pay more for higher quality? What do I get in exchange?
And the answer should be clear and concise: quality gives you value and beauty. In the case of gems this should be of real importance, because these products must keep their beauty and their value in 5 or 10 or 200 years. A gem that loses its beauty also loses its value
How can we measure pearl quality? That is a very interesting question and one we hope to be able to answer in an easy and precise manner. In the meantime, we will tell you about a critical indicator of pearl quality: nacre thickness and we will see why this indicator is this so important. But first let us begin this post with a couple of stories…
A Life Investment
For millennia, human beings have purchased precious stones and metals, as well as jewelry and ornaments – made with these materials- for their personal use and enjoyment. Jewelry items are not only used as adornments or to establish “status” amongst people; they can also serve as a manner of “safe-guard” in moments of crisis. As an example, in many countries women adorn themselves with lots of jewelry and this can be of a great advantage at times: imagine that at moments of social unrest or economic struggle, that a family has to flee for their lives, keeping only what the family is wearing? Of course, you may own a pair of fancy tennis shoes, but that will not be enough to feed the family or pay a ransom, but your mother’s jewelry may be enough to help the family get on its feet again. Of course there’s also the question of quality: it would be better to possess a single high-quality –valuable- item, than 20 kilos of costume jewelry (it will not even allow you to run faster). Under this logic let us examine a relatively well documented case.
On October 1917 -during the Russian revolution- the new Bolshevik government began arresting all Russian nobility. This meant that the aristocrats fled their country, leaving behind their palaces, land, clothes and furniture, keeping with them only those items which had great value and were easily carried and hidden. Amongst these Russian nobleman was Prince Alexander Yousopoff (better known for his part in the assassination of Rasputin) who fled to Paris with some family jewels. Amongst his most precious treasure he had a pearl necklace (that some assumed had many Sea of Cortez pearls, due to the voracity Russian nobility had for fine pearls) that might have belonged to his mother, Princess Zenaida Youssopova. During his final stay in France, his economic problems became greater and finally –in 1922- he decided to sell this pearl necklace (it might be the one that appears in his mother’s portrait, although without the famous “La Regente” pearl, also known as “Napoleón’s Pearl”, because this pearl has its own unique story). The sale was done by prestigious jeweler Pierre Cartier, who was able to sell the pearl strand to a rich American heiress at a value of $400,000 U.S. dollars.
To be honest with you all, this story might have some contradicting leads (which I believe just adds a detectivesque flavor to it) and you may want to dig deeper into the story…just like treasure hunting. Some -like this reference- lead us to think that the pearl necklace might have originally belonged to Catherine “The Great” of Russia, but the necklace could’ve been part of the Imperial Russian treasury, although it is said but the jewelry was found by the Bolsheviks, hidden within a wall in one of the imperial palaces of the Romanov dynasty. In order to have a more coherent story we are using the information found in the “Cortez Pearl” website as valid.
Nacre thickness and pearl quality
For us, one of the main attributes to take into consideration is nacre thickness. To understand what this is all about, we can ask the following question: How much of your pearl is really pearl? Let us analyze this.
Most marine –or salt-water- cultured pearls are produced by the introduction of a small shell-bead -by means of a special surgery- inside the pearl oyster’s body, and over a length of time –the culture period- the little bead will become coated by millions of thin nacre layers, deposited one over the other (in the likeness of an onion) until the pearl is harvested. Under a short culture period (4 to 8 months) the pearl will have a thin nacre coating, but under a longer culture cycle (18 to 24 months) they will possess an excellent nacre coating.
- X-Rays: these are used to observe the shell bead within the pearl, and we can also measure the pearl’s nacreous thickness. This is a method that is employed by many pearl producing countries, such as Tahiti.
- Cutting the pearls in half: we select a sample of pearls that will be cut in half to analyze their nacre thickness. This is the best method to determine nacre thickness…but it might be a bit destructive for most people.
- Inspection of the drill hole: this is a difficult method to use and that will not ensure you of the pearl’s nacre thickness, but it does help to identify pearls with a thin nacre coating.
Additionally, we have indirect methods that may be utilized by different pearl farmers. We utilize a simple technique which provides us with very good information regarding nacre thickness: we utilize a group of control oysters in wish we only insert shell beads with a single size. Thus at the end of the culture period, we can measure the harvested pearls and determine their nacre thickness by means of the size difference between the shell bead and the resulting pearl (if we use a 6 mm shell-bead or nucleus, at the moment of harvest the pearls will at least measure 8.2 mm), but we can also gauge both the maximum and minimum nacre thickness in a given lot of pearls. Utilizing a combination of these methods we can feel assured of the nacre quality of our cultured pearls.
Harvest 2010- Nacre Thickness
We feel are grateful for this year’s harvest especially with the resultant nacre thickness, which was excellent. The range we consider typical of a Cortez Pearl is a minimum of 0.8 mm, with an average thickness of 1.2 mm and, in a rare occasions, exceeding 2.2 mm. With this nacre thickness, Sea of Cortez pearls are just as good –and sometimes better- as most South Sea pearls in the market today.
In the image above you can appreciate the nacre thickness of a group of pearls that was cut in half to evaluate their nacreous coating. Those with a thinner coating (left side) have a thickness of 0.9 mm, the average ones (central portion) measure 1.5 mm and the thicker ones (on the right side) may even reach up to 2.8 mm (in all instances I am just mentioning the thickness on one of the pearl’s sides, as seen in the following photo).
Sea of Cortez pearls: Our guarantee
A thick nacre coating means that the pearl has what it takes to display good natural luster -thus it will not be necessary to polish it- and for the pearl to have durability -to endure the passage of time- and to become a family heirloom. On the other hand a pearl with a thin nacre coating will seem dull and unappealing –unless the pearl is polished- lacking real beauty and devoid of orient, it will not be durable and can easily peel and crack.
The pearl we produce is guaranteed for life against natural defects if the pearl suffers any damage (not due to the wearer), then this pearl will be replaced by another one of the same quality for value. In most instances, any damage from the pearl is caused by the wearer such as scratches, damage caused by jewelers, and –sometimes-even being run over by a car, but these are exceptional cases.
If we take into consideration that a thinly coated pearl can have a “useful life” of only a few months to perhaps a couple of years, then a pearl with a value of $10.00 U.S. dollars becomes an expensive product:
- $10.00 divided by 8 months = $1.25 per month
- $10.00 divided by 24 months = 42¢ per month
But if the pearl has a thick nacre coating, then it has the potential of a long, useful life, well in the range of hundreds of years; but since this is something really hard to estimate, let us say that with a lifetime guarantee we are at least talking about 80 years. Thus if we have a pearl valued at $1,000 USD we are talking about a good price:
- $1,000 divided by 80 years = $12.50 per year = $1.04 per month
So, you get the idea: quality pearls actually give you more of everything. And, now let us go back to our question of “why should we be interested in a pearl’s quality?” but now analyzing it from the viewpoint of the pearl producer: Why should we invest more time to in order to obtain a higher quality pearl? What do we receive in exchange? The main thing you obtain is prestige to a proven quality and second: it’s a matter of personal pride (you can actually feel good about what you are doing).
Investing in quality is well worth it. In the future, we will continue to talk about other aspects of pearl quality.
A New Option: The Pearl’s Drill-Hole
Comparing drill-holes: true pearl vs. imitation pearl
Analyzing Pearl Jewelry:
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.
Myth #2: The Aquaculture of Pearls in Spain
It is fascinating to meet with people from all over the world, specially if they are seasoned travelers…they always have interesting stories to share with us and we appreciated their talk and sharing of experiences, specially when they have previously visited other pearl farms in Japan, Tahiti or Australia EXCEPT when someone comes up with their “Mallorca Pearl Farm Visit”. The typical description is that they have seen divers retrieving the always perfectly round pearls that seem to come in only 4 basic colors.
Spain is, indeed, a great aquaculture producer…but its main products revolve around edible shellfish production: scallops, mussels and edible oysters. These species of bivalves are usually produced in the northern part of Spain, on the coastline of Galicia, where they grow three very tasty and valuable species: the Mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis), the “Vieira” or Queen scallop (Pecten maximus) and the european rock oyster (Ostrea edulis). But none of these species are able of producing nacreous pearls (they would produce “calcium concretions” or “non-nacreous pearls“) so they cannot look like the “Mallorca Pearl”. Let us look into this more closely then…
The so called production of these famous “european pearls” is found in the city of Manacor, Spain, and… where is this place??? It is a beautiful spot in the Mediterranean Sea (see map, courtesy of Google Earth), an area that has not been known or recognized -not today nor in ancient times- as a great pearl producer. Also, take note that Manacor is on an island…but not right next to the sea but some kilometer away from it. This can only mean then that the pearls and their oysters are being grown in special ponds or lakes or maybe even in rivers… but examining the city with Google Maps or any similar program will not reveal any evidence of large lakes/ponds suitable for a grand scale production of pearl oysters nor mussels.
Very well then… they must grow the pearls and their oysters in the ocean and haul them into the city as needed. What variety of pearl oyster could they use to produce their pearls? Let us do a bit of research…hmm, we seem to find very few sources that include information on pearl fisheries -past and present- inside the Mediterranean Sea. Let us use Sohei Shirahi’s excellent book “Pearls & Pearl Oysters of the World” and let us see…weird… no pearl oysters reported in that area of the Mediterranean. The only information we find is that from another great book -actually a “grand classic” on the subject- Kunz and Stevenson’s (1908) “The Book of the Pearl” which cites that a man by the last name of Vassel states that in 1896 , the “Akoya Pearl Oyster” (Pinctada imbricata) made its way into the Mediterranean by way of the Suez Canal and can now be found in limited areas of Tunisia, North Africa. Yet, there is another pearl oyster in the region: the “Mediterranean Winged Oyster” (Pteria hirundo) which can be found in Turkey and Italy. There is not a single report of these species for the Spanish island of Mallorca. The following map can give us a clearer idea of the worldwide distribution of pearl oysters (based on Shirai, 1994).
Well then, if there are NO pearl oysters nor pearly mussels in Spain nor in its island of Majorca… what gave rise to this myth? It is hard to know, but we all know how half-truths have an easy way of propagating… like summer grass on fire. It is a fact that the Spaniards have always stated that their so-called “pearls” are just as beautiful -or better- than their cultured pearl counterparts, or even state that their product is manufactured using “marine materials” but I have never seen an advertisement or article that states that they “grow” their pearls inside living oysters. But some people are…that is for sure. For what reason or to what ends? You can be the judge. So, let us go to an “official” “Majorca Pearls” website, from where I extracted the following text:
“Majorca pearls are imitation pearls manufactured on the Spanish island of Majorca in the Mediterranean. Local women there have specialized in the artistic fabrication of faux pearls since the 19th Century. These pearls have such a resemblance to the natural cultivated pearls that only experts can tell them apart.”
That last part about only experts being able to tell them apart is a hoax (in future posts we will try to help you identify all sorts of pearls, including fakes…which are very easy).
But for now I believe that it is quite clear that these imitations or “faux perles” are not grown from live organisms, but a product of Human manufacture. But, for those that will still believe otherwise… I have -for the first time on the Internet- a perfectly preserved specimen of the very elusive “Majorcan Pearl Oyster” (scientifically named: Plasticus artifactus). The specimen can be admired at our Museum-like display at the Pearl-Shop in Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico… so stop for a visit, don’t miss on this unique opportunity!
If you have questions or an interesting subject to suggest, please feel free to make your comments known on this Blog…see you in a couple of weeks!
Well, this is the “wrap-up” for “The Virgin’s Pearl” story. At this point I must -once more- ask you to focus on the fact that all of these coincidences happened at very different moments in time, and it wasn’t until very recently that we realized there was a connection at all. Weird? Disturbing? Fun? All of the above…but let us say that we now believe there are things well above the realm of mere chances.
So, what I am about to tell you happened almost one year ago, during the winter of 2008. It was the middle of the “Pearl Seeding Season” and Enrique and I were placidly operating our “Rainbow Lipped Oysters” (Pteria sterna). Just another “normal” morning in the life of a pearl farmer…telling jokes or talking politics, but Enrique became silent first, his eyes widening and then: a frantic babble of words, one hand holding the oyster the other pointing at something inside the oyster’s dark body mass: a pearl.
But it wasn’t just “a pearl”, I mean we ARE in a Pearl Farm so you do expect them, but this was a NATURAL PEARL: the largest most perfect black pearl we have ever laid our eyes on.
Here are its specs:
- Shape: Near Round
- Color: Jet Black with cobalt blue overtone.
- Size: 9.9 x 10.1 mm (diameter)
After only 16 years of working as pearl farmers…the grandest of treasures appeared. And of course this was just mere chance. Or was it? Of course, just some time later I reported this find on the Pearl-Guide forum.
The thing is that this pearl was found on December 18: the very same day dedicated to the “Virgin of Solitude”, of which we knew nothing at all at that moment.
So, here is our coincidence list:
- The “Virgin of Solitude” (“Virgen de la Soledad”) of Oaxaca had been given a large -very likely natural- pearl to grace her forehead. It was very likely a Sea of Cortez Pearl, and maybe it came from Mr. Gastón Vivés’ pearl farm in Lower California. The Virgin’s garments and attire were stolen.
- A replacement pearl was needed, to resemble as closely as possible to the original; so a replacement pearl was found: It was a cultured pearl grown in our pearl farm in Sea of Cortez. Our records confirm that the Virgin’s new pearl was obtained from a pearl oyster that had been operated on December 18, 2007.
- A pearl of a find: an exquisite natural black pearl was obtained from one of our farm raised pearl oysters. The date of the find: December 18, 2008.
Please keep in mind that December 18 is a special date: it is the day that was dedicated to the Patron Saint of Oaxaca, Our Lady of the Solitude or the “Virgin of Solitude”. This is the date that ties in these matters into a knot. We leave you to make up your own mind…but, for us, we don’t believe in “mere coincidences” anymore.
Special Note from Douglas: I do not worship nor adore any “Virgin Mary” image, nor do I revere them…for me these are historical images, a part of Mexico’s cultural heritage and thus I believe in their preservation.
This is the part where the story of the Virgin of Solitude’s new clothes meets us at the Pearl Farm in Bacochibampo Bay. But even if this retelling of the story may sound like a made-up story it is not: be it coincidence or luck or predestination we may never know. The only thing I can tell you is that it happened, and we made certain “connections” only until we had become more involved in this issue.
It was the month of June when Enrique received a phone call from Oaxaca, from a person (names withheld for privacy, but he’s the man on the left side of the photo) in charge of the remaking of the Virgin’s 18K flower (an Annunciation Lily flower). He had visited our pearl farm a couple of years before and he thought about us as a possible supplier for the missing large pearl. He clearly stated his purpose and we immediately offered our help by offering him 3 suitable pearls (we had not seen an image of the pearl). Photos were delivered via e-mail, but our offering was refused because the pearls were “small” (9-10 mm) and too colorful. “You need to search harder” we were told. The three of us knew -we just knew, we had finished harvesting some pearls- that we did not have a larger, rounder and less colorful pearl available, but Manuel went back to the safe to take another look at the bag with the large pearls: there was no harm in just going to make extra certain of this fact. Actually, we were very reluctant to go back to the pearl stash, but he just said “Please, go look again and ask the Virgin to help you find a suitable pearl”.
A couple of minutes later -Enrique was still on the phone- Manuel came back (his eyes all wide) holding a large oval pearl of light gray-green-blue color, very suitable for the task. Enrique told our new friend from Oaxaca about the find and he answered very matter-of-factly: “Of course…the Virgin requires this of you”. Once again, photos were sent and the pearl was considered the best option by the group in Oaxaca.
The new pearl is a farm-raised or cultured pearl produced in our Pearl Farm in Bacochibampo Bay, Guaymas, Sonora. Unusually large (12 mm) for a pearl produced by our Rainbow Lip Oysters (Pteria sterna) and not as intensely colored, having a more subdued nature which makes it more similar to the original one.
Anyway, we traced the pearl’s history (yes, we keep track of each oyster and pearl in our farm) and found some information to be very valuable: the pearl oyster had been seeded by Douglas on December 18, 2007…almost two years before, but on the very day consecrated to the Virgin of Solitude (remember I mentioned that date on post 1?).
But there are still some other things to mention here, on 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.
In the Spanish language there is a very old and common saying that states the following: “Pedir las Perlas de la Virgen” or “To ask for the Virgin Mary’s Pearls”, meaning -basically- that you are asking too much. This very recent story has to do with this popular phrase, but it is intertwined with many other stories. To some it may be overly simplistic, yet it is truthful.
Our story begins in the city of Oaxaca, a beautiful city full of history and traditions. This city is the home of “La Virgen de la Soledad” or “Our Lady of Solitude”: Patron Saint of the City. The local story states that the virgin was inside a crate that was to be delivered to the city of Guatemala, but the wagon that transported her broke down, the crate was impossible to carry to a new wagon so the Virgin clearly stated her desire to remain at that site.
I will briefly mention that this Virgin’s abode is the church that bear’s her name: “Basílica de la Virgen de la Soledad”. This beautiful temple has declared a cultural heritage by UNESCO in 1987. This temple was built on the exact spot where the Virgin decided to stay, this moment dating back to 1543. I will also mention here that the day dedicated to this particular Virgin is December 18, since this will be important in future posts.
Anyway, back in 1909 -exactly 100 years ago- the Virgin of Solitude was “crowned” in a special ceremony. She was gifted with a regal attire consisting of a cloak, a flower, a rosary and a crown: over 15 kilos of 18K gold in it, as well as many precious and semi-precious stones, including emeralds, rubies and many pearls (mainly found on the crown, the flower and the rosary), including a large nacreous orb (a big pearl) that hung on her forehead. I mean, this venerated wooden statue depicting the Holy Virgin Mary is not a small figurine…but a large, life sized human figure.
As you can imagine, this regal attire presented certain problems: it can attract the greedy, not only because of the wealth it represents but also because its artistic value (“Sacred Art”). And in January 10th of 1991 the Virgin was bereft of her garments. The crime is still unsolved.
The Virgin’s Coronation’s 100th anniversary takes place this year, and a group of people and the Catholic Church have worked towards the restoration of their patron Saint’s attire: they have already finished the golden flower, the new crown and are finishing the robe, all in full detail: including the large pearl that hung on her forehead.
This is were this story links with our story…