This post highlights the pearl, the beautiful birthstone associated with the month of June. Few people realize that Mexico was once the world’s major source of pearls.
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”.
Mexico’s pearling industry was on the edge of world-wide fame. In a future post, we will see how the introduction of newer technology after 1870 revolutionized pearl collecting in Mexico, bringing a boom that would last well into the twentieth century.
Sources / Further reading:
- 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.
- Landman, Neil H and Mikkelsen, P. Pearls: A Natural History (Harry N. Abrams, 2001)
- Mayo, C. M. Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico. Milkweed Editions. 2007.
This post is an edited version of the original article which appeared on MexConnect.