Did you know? Mexico was once the world’s major source of pearls

articles History & People

Tony Burton

This month’s Did You Know column highlights the pearl, the beautiful birthstone associated with the month of June.

The history of pearl collecting in Mexico goes back a very long way. When Spanish explorers sailed into the Sea of Cortés (Gulf of California) in the early 1530s they encountered Pericú Indians wearing necklaces strung with red berries, shells and blackened pearls. It is believed that pearl jewelry in the region dates back about 7000 years. Lacking metal knives, the only way the Indians could prize open the oyster shells and find pearls was by throwing the shells into a fire, hence the charred pearls. The Spanish explorers quickly recognized that their knives would yield lustrous milky-white pearls, the equal in quality of any found in the Middle East or Asia.

Harvesting pearls became a priority as the Spaniards tried to establish permanent settlements on the arid peninsula now known as Baja California. From 1535 to Mexican independence in 1821, thousands of pearls were dispatched to Europe on a regular basis, where they were incorporated into the lavishly decorated regalia of many notable European courts. During the period of Jesuit missions in Baja (1697 to 1768) pearl collecting was restricted, but even then illegal traffic in pearls persisted.

Following Mexico’s independence, other European nations besides Spain sought access to Baja pearls. For instance, English traveler R. W. H. Hardy arrived in Mexico in 1825, to prospect for pearls and coral on behalf of the General Pearl and Coral Fishery Association of London. Hardy was proud of having “travelled over a part of Mexico visited by no other European” and greatly valued the local knowledge of the coastal Indians of north-western Mexico. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Hardy developed a very positive view of the Indians he met, and felt that they had far more to offer outsiders than just the location of natural resources.

The pearling industry in Baja really took off in the mid-nineteenth century as enterprising, business-minded armadores hired native divers (mainly Yaqui Indians from Sonora) to explore the numerous shallow coves between La Paz and Mulegé, and around the islands including Cerralvo and Isla Espíritu Santo. Diving was a seasonal occupation, primarily carried out during the warm months from May to late September. At other times of the year, water temperatures and higher winds made diving difficult or impossible. The Indian divers worked from rustic canoes for up to five hours a day, armed with a short sharpened stick which did double duty, to pry oyster shells off the seabed and to ward off lurking sharks and manta rays. The divers earned a share of the catch, but their rewards were meager and benefits few.

Citing a 1859 paper, Kunz and Stevenson report that by 1857, 95,000 tons of oysters had been removed from the Sea of Cortés, “yielding 2770 pounds of pearls, worth $5,540,000.” Mexico’s high society also lusted after pearls, leading Empress Carlota to remark how the ladies attending a theater event all wore dresses “covered in pearls”.

Looking for oyster shells was revolutionized after 1874 when larger vessels, equipped with diving suits and accompanying equipment, first entered Mexican waters. The newer methods permitted access to shells in much deeper water, and lengthened the season, greatly increasing the industry’s productivity. The dangers associated with pearl hunting changed. Equipment failures and lax supervision cost many lives. According to Kunz and Stevenson, divers confined to diving suits for hours at a time frequently suffered rheumatism, paralysis (due to compression and sudden temperature changes) and partial deafness. On the other hand, diving suits reduced shark attacks.

The conditions in Baja California were so favorable for pearling that by 1889, within a few years of its incorporation, the Compañía Perlífera de la Baja California (based in La Paz, and employing about 900 men) had come to completely dominate the world pearling industry. One of the largest pearls found in the Sea of Cortés was one weighing 372 grains found near Mulegé in 1884. On arrival in Paris, its value was estimated at 85,000 francs (about 16 600 dollars at the exchange rate of the time). A 400-grain pearl, found in the same area, now forms part of the Spanish crown jewels.

A 1903 article in The New York Times says that the Baja pearl industry had produced more than two million dollars worth of pearls in 1902, including some of the “finest jewels of this kind found anywhere in the world”. The article describes several individual pearls, and emphasizes that the area is “noted for its fancy pearls – that is to say, the colored and especially the black ones”. As mentioned earlier, the native Indians wore fire-blackened pearls. This seems to have been a particularly prescient choice, given the extremely high premiums long placed on natural black pearls. Even today, at least one firm in Baja specializes in producing cultured black pearls from rainbow-lipped oysters.

As the twentieth century progressed, cultured and artificial pearls were able to out-compete natural pearls in terms of price and availability. By 1936, a century of rampant overfishing of oyster beds had depleted natural stocks to the point where recovery was unlikely. Finding fifteen to twenty small pearls required the harvesting of a ton of oyster shells. To cap it off, an unknown disease then spread rapidly through the remaining oysters, virtually wiping them out. By the time the American writer John Steinbeck arrived in Baja in 1941, the glory days of Mexican pearling were over. While in La Paz, Steinbeck came across a legendary (and cautionary) local tale about the greed associated with finding a massive pearl. The story became the catalyst for his novella “The Pearl“, published in 1947, in which Kino, an impoverished pearl diver, finds a huge pearl, “The Pearl of the World” which promises to transform his life. It does, but not in the way one might expect. Kino becomes a brutal sociopath; the story becomes a dark tale of the costs of defying traditional customs.

Today, very few natural pearls are harvested in the Sea of Cortés, but several Baja California firms cultivate pearls, helping to extend a centuries-old industry into the twenty-first century. It is especially appropriate, therefore, that the city of La Paz, once the center of the world’s pearling industry, is still known, even today, as the “Pearl of the Sea of Cortés”.

Sources / Further reading:

  • Anon. Important Pearl Fisheries on the Coast of California. The New York Times, June 14, 1903.
  • Hardy, R. W. H. 1829 Travels in the Interior of Mexico in 1825, 1826, 1827 and 1828. London: Henry Colburn & Richard Bentley. Reprinted in 1977, Texas: Rio Grande Classics.
  • Kunz, G. F., and Stevenson, C. H. The Book of the Pearl: Its History, Art, Science and Industry. Dover. 2001.
  • Mayo, C. M. Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico. Milkweed Editions. 2007.
Published or Updated on: June 1, 2008 by Tony Burton © 2008
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