Mexico’s Black Pearls

Perlas del Mar de Cortez, the first modern commercial cultured saltwater pearl farm in North America, has harvested its fourth crop of pearls, and the results are dramatic.

“This harvest shows more colors than previous harvests, only including pearls from the rainbow-lipped oysters Pteria sterna,” says company co-founder Enrique Arizmendi Castillo, M.Sc., a pearl culture specialist. He says the colors are strikingly different from those seen in 2001, “with almost no golden pearls. New this year are coppery and purple tones.”

The cultured Mexican blacks, trademarked “Sea of Cortez Cultured Pearls,” have a coloration similar to that of Tahitian pearls. They are grown mostly in rainbow-lipped oysters and a few indigenous Panamic black-lipped oysters (Pinctada mazatlanica, which is similar to the Tahitian Pinctada margaritifera). The pearls are grown in Bacochibampo Bay, near the city of Guaymas in the state of Sonora.

Pearls, which have been found all along the Central American coast, were discovered by the pre-Columbian Aztecs and Zapotecs as well as the Yaquis and Seris tribes. Tribe members enjoyed wearing and trading pearls and shell centuries before the Europeans arrived, but it was the Spanish conquistadors and explorers who made the pearls world famous.

The written history of Central American pearls begins with Vasco Nuñez de Balboa (1475-1519), who in 1513 traveled across Panama to become the first Spaniard to reach the Pacific Ocean. To prove his worthiness and loyalty, Balboa sent back gold and pearls to Spain’s King Ferdinand.

A decade or so later, one of the world’s most famous pearls made its way to Spain from the New World. La Peregrina (“The Pilgrim”) is a 203.84-grain (50.96-ct.) perfectly symmetrical drop-shape pearl whose provenance begins with Prince Phillip II of Spain (1527-1598). He’s supposed to have given it to Mary Tudor (1516-1558), daughter of England’s Henry VIII, as a wedding gift, but other accounts have Queen Margarita, wife of Phillip III, wearing it in England at a celebration in 1605. La Peregrina remained with European royalty for centuries and for a while was owned by Napoleon III (1808-1873). It was sold at auction in 1969 to actor Richard Burton, who purchased it as a gift for his wife, Elizabeth Taylor. She still wears the pearl as the focal point of what’s been characterized as “a lavish necklace.”

The history of commercial Mexican pearl farming begins a few years before Mikimoto made popular his mabés and round white Japanese cultured pearls. It is said that the world’s first commercial pearl oyster farm began in Mexico in earnest around 1903 in La Paz. The city (not to be confused with La Paz, Bolivia) is located on the east coast of Baja, north of Cabo San Lucas, and it’s where modern pearl trading began in the 18th century.

But the farming industry there was short-lived. In 1914 the Mexican Revolutionary Army left the city of La Paz—and its pearl farms—in ruin. Following the revolution, only pearl diving remained, and that industry was destroyed by a mysterious event in 1936 that killed the pearl oysters in the Sea of Cortez.

The culprit turned out to be the Hoover Dam, which prevented the Colorado River’s fresh water from reaching the Sea of Cortez. The sea’s salinity increased, changing the distribution of species, which changed the ecosystem, and oysters began to die. The Sea of Cortez took decades to recover. Overfishing may also have been part of the problem. Arizmendi notes that as a result of the diminishing numbers of pearl oysters, the government declared a permanent ban on fishing the two pearl oyster species in 1940.

A small experimental farm inside the Bay of La Paz was launched in the 1960s with advice and help from the late Australian pearl culture specialist C. Dennis George and Don Manuel Lozano Gallo. But just when it seemed the return of the Mexican black pearl was imminent, the federal government—in what was reported to be an act of political vengeance—seized and nationalized the pearl farm.

The 1990s saw political changes in Mexico, and pearl farming started again. The first experimental harvest of cultured mabé pearls took place in February 1994 at the research facilities of the Guaymas Campus of the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey. Loose round cultured pearls were harvested in 1995, and in 1996 the first modern saltwater pearl farm on the American continent began.

For more information about Mexico’s black pearls, log onto Perlas del Mar de Cortez’s Web site at www.perlas.com.mx.