Recently a blog post was featured on the JCK website with some (possibly?) unknown facts about pearls. Not too much surprising info but what did surprise me is the author decided to mention Cortez pearls. Since I was only a few weeks out from my trip, my ears perked up. Pearls from the Sea of Cortez are not readily mentioned when discussing pearls and pearl cultivation even though it’s the only commercial pearl farm in the Americas that produces whole cultured pearls. (Re: GIA)
Yes, here I am on my deck overlooking the Sea of Cortez, preparing for tomorrow’s visit to Perlas del Mar de Cortez. According to the JCK article, the pearl farm has been in operation since the 1990s but is by no means Mexico’s first attempt at culturing pearls.
Spanish explorers traveled across Mexico and Central America to discover the natural pearls of the Pacific Ocean, a beauty and and luxury already well known by the native Aztecs. These explorers sent treasures back to Europe, fueling the Spanish royalty’s love of these fine gems and the world’s recognition of these Central American treasures.
Natural pearls were all the rage and their supplies were severally impacted by overfishing. And the price tag on natural pearls were huge. This, of course, led Mikimoto to start culturing his own pearls in Japan. Around the same time (in the early 1900s) a pearl farm was in operation in Mexico, too.
The Sea of Cortez sits between the west coast of the mainland of Mexico and the Baja Peninsula. Although I am here on the mainland staring west towards the Baja peninsula, the first pearl farm was actual on the east coast of the Baja Peninsula in the town of La Paz, north of Cabo San Lucas.
Pearl farming in La Paz was a short-lived affair, prematurely ending in 1914, midway through the Mexican Revolution. Soldiers not only destroyed the area of La Paz but the entire Mexican culture and government was transformed. It was back to natural pearls for local pearl divers.. Then, of course, we have the issue of the Hoover Dam which severely impacted the Sea of Cortez and literally decimated the mollusk population.
Pearl farming returned in the 1960s but proved to be a yet another failure, this time due to the Mexican government. This is a theme we see repeated in many countries. The government has to be on board for a pearl farm to thrive. Pearl farming was put on hold until the current pearl farmers launched their pearl farming efforts in 1994.
I cannot wait to find out more details tomorrow. As of now the pearl farm’s website has been hacked and Douglas, on of the owners of the farm, told me it is impossible to access and fix (stay tuned, he is launching a new website!). So, I have to save many of my big questions for tomorrow.
But, quick rundown. What are these pearl farmers up to in Bacochibampo Bay Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico?
This operation revolves around two mollusk species and produces pearls called the rainbow lipped mollusk. This means the outer lip of the inside of the shell is rainbow colored. As you know, a mollusk can produce pearls the same color as its shell so this mollusk produces rainbow colored pearls. Another name for this species is the western winged mollusk or, scientifically, the Pteria sterna. This is a native mollusk.
Let’s run through the different quality factors of pearls which bear strongly on what I will be looking at when I purchase these Cortez pearls.
First, size: The pearls typically range in size between 8 and 9.5mm in diameter but they can measure as large 12mm. The nacre thickness (which is the amount of pearl on top of the nucleus inside is between 0.8 to 2.3 mm.
If you have read my blog before (or met me!) you know that nacre quality is very important to me. I love, love, love freshwater pearls without bead nucleases so there is not range of nacre thickness… the pearl is almost entirely nacre. But, again, this bead nucleus is what we get with saltwater cultured pearls and if you want a rainbow colored pearl, this is something we have to contend with. It goes without saying, my haul tomorrow will include pearls with as thick of nacre as possible.
So, what about color? What color is a rainbow colored pearl? These Cortez cultured pearls have a body or base color of gray to dark gray, brown or yellow and their overtones range from purple to pink, blue to green or yellow. Again, these are all natural colors!
And shape… As with most cultured pearl operations, only the top 2% is going to be the highest quality and, in the case of this farm, only the top 2% of the pearls are going to be round or near round. So I expect to find many off size pearls.
There is a specific reason I came this time of year… it is harvest time!
The western winged mollusk is typically nucleated with it’s mother of pearl bead and mantle tissue in the late Fall and 18 months later, in late May and early June, the pearls are harvested.
Now, you might remember I mentioned that two types of mollusks are cultured in this area.
The Pteria Sterna is a great mollusk for many reasons except the production of mother of pearl. It is too thin for mother of pearl. The other mollusk cultured in this area is the Pinctada mazatlantica. This mollusk used to be abundant in the Sea of Cortez, south to the shorelines of Peru but overfishing took its toll on the native populations.
These mollusk are forbidden to fish now as attempts are made to repopulate them. They have a creamy mother of pearl and therefore do not produce the same rainbow colored pearls that the Sea of Cortez is becoming known for.