Cortez Pearls: The World's First Black Pearl

Mexican Magnificence
When you think of Mexico, what comes to mind?

How about naturally black pearls? That's right. From 1500 to 1800, pearls were as much associated with Mexico as pottery is today. In fact, Mexico was the world's only source of black pearls-most from the Sea of Cortez, the 700-mile long inlet that separates Mexico's mainland from its California peninsula. Now, off the Sea of Cortez's cactus-dotted, rugged desert shoreline, Mexico has re-joined the league of pearl-producing nations.

Introducing Cortez Pearls®-the last word in black pearls from the world's first source of this gem. Cortez pearls are like no other black pearls. They are the Rolls Royce of the black pearl world. But their rare beauty and aesthetic differences are only part of the story. Cortez pearls are produced in limited-edition harvests that are part of keeping three solemn pledges.

• The first pledge is to environmental protection. Unlike any other in the world, the Cortez pearl farm is owned by marine biologists who are determined to preserve Mexico's natural beauty.
• The second pledge is to quality. The Cortez pearl farm is committed to producing only the finest, most iridescent and lustrous cultured pearls. Poor quality pearls will never be offered for sale.
• The third pledge is to integrity. Every Cortez pearl owes its beauty to nature not man. Unlike pearls from other countries, Cortez Pearls are never artificially enhanced to improve color, luster or complexion.

Before talking about Cortez Pearls, let's look at the fascinating history and heritage of the Mexican black pearl. As you'll see, Cortez Pearls build on a long legacy.

Black Beauties Fit for Queens
Diamonds aren't the only gems that have the power to rescue people from financial ruin. Mexican black pearls have saved many from misfortune.

When the Bolsheviks seized the reins of Russian government in October 1917, they began executing nobles as fast as they could arrest them, Prince Felix Youssoupov, Czarist Russia's Donald Trump, fled for Paris with every jewel he could sew in the linings of his luggage. The greatest of his treasures was a Mexican black pearl necklace owned by Catherine the Great (1729-1796) and given by her to his mother.

In 1922, Felix fell on hard times and asked jeweler Pierre Cartier to sell the strand. It fetched $400,000 from an American heiress-as much money as any Rembrandt painting then fetched at auction.

New World black pearls, principally from the Gulf of California (also known as the Sea of Cortez)-were cornerstones of Old World wealth from 1500 until 1850. Besides Catherine, their admirers included Marie Antoinette and Princess Eugenie, consorts and then wives, respectively, of Napoleon Bonaparte and Napoleon III.

Cortez Pearls, cultured in limited-edition harvests in Mexico, are identical in beauty to those that captivated the courts of Europe when Spanish explorers started sending them home in the early 1500s.


Spain's Great Pearl Quest
It is fitting that Mexico's most successful cultured pearl farm ever should be located in the Sea of Cortez. There in 1533, Hernan Cortez, the Spanish conquistador who 13 years earlier had defeated the Aztec nation and claimed Mexico for the Spanish Crown, launched the first of three pearl expeditions-the last, in 1536, led by Cortez himself.

The Spaniard wasn't looking for the white pearls found by the ton off of Venezuela. Nor was he looking for the pretty pink conch pearls of the Caribbean. He was looking for a unique variety of dark gray pearl-many with purple, green and blue overtones-that he had often seen worn by the natives of Mexico.

Cortez had an inspired hunch that Mexico's black pearls would add wide diversity to the then rather limited color spectrum of this gem. Most pearls were white, cream or yellow. Mexican pearls often boasted striking eggplant-purple, sky-blue and peacock-green colors in addition to the pewter-grey or jet-black varieties. Cortez gambled that shipments of black pearls would be just as welcome by his royal sponsors as shipments of white pearls.

Keep in mind that pearls were the most coveted gem in Europe at the time. Indeed, just before he sailed for the Indies in 1492, Christopher Columbus asked King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella for a list of their most preferred plunder. Pearls were at the top-ahead of gold and silver. Cortez, who was always embroiled in political intrigue, knew pearl cargo would help keep him in favor with his patron: Charles V, king of Spain and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

Two Breeds of Black
Black pearls have never been found in the quantities of white pearls. Nevertheless, for centuries Mexico was a prodigious supplier of this variety. Cortez, the first Westerner to hunt for black pearls with systematic determination, had two species of pearl oyster to choose from: the Pinctada mazatlanica (La Paz black-lipped pearl oyster) and the smaller but more colorful Ptenia sterna (Western Winged rainbow-lipped pearl oyster). Not only were these mollusks plentiful, they prolifically produced pearls, often as many as 14 out of every 100 shucked oysters.

Because of its oyster plentitude, Mexico was known for nearly four centuries as the world's sole and then later primary source of black pearls-gradually giving way to Tahiti after 1850. Most Mexican pearls came from the west coast state of Sonora where the Gulf of California's pearl fisheries are located. Between 1827 and 1874, Mexico shipped 500 metric tons of pearl shell to Europe every two years. One can only imagine the accompanying volume of pearls.

In 1874, Mexico's pearl production briefly surpassed old peaks with the introduction of diving suits that allowed divers to go deeper and gather oysters for longer periods of time. For the next decade, divers raided the most populous pearl beds. As oyster retrieval rates began to exceed reproduction rates, overfishing rapidly wiped out Sonora's pearl fisheries.

It didn't help that female oysters were much larger than males (oysters are herma- phroditic, starting life as males and then becoming females), which made them more likely targets for divers. With fewer and fewer females, it was only a matter of time before oyster stocks were depleted.


Don Gaston Vives: Mexico's Mikimoto
Because pearls were a vital part of Mexico's heritage, the dream of retaining or regaining prestige as a producer died hard. Faced with destruction of its rich oyster beds, the only answer was to switch from pearl fishing to pearl farming.

Believe it or not, Mexico, which was the world's first commercial producer of natural black pearls, became the world's first commercial producer of cultured black pearls. The year was 1903-at exactly the same time Japan's Kochiki Mikimoto was perfecting his techniques for growing pearls.

Unlike Mikimoto, Vives, a medical doctor of French origin, did not engage in pearl-culturing as the term is understood today. Salt-water pearl culturing, as developed by Mikimoto, involved implanting a clam-shell nuclei wrapped in mantle tissue in the gonads of a mature pearl oyster, then waiting anywhere from two to four summers for the host oyster to secrete a heavy layer of pearl nacre around the bead, the end-result: round, lustrous pearls. With some variation, this is the method practiced in all ocean water pearl farms today. Except Vives' farm.

He did not cultivate pearls. He cultivated oysters (in this case, Pinctada mazatlanica) to maturity in a protected site.

To assure large pearl harvests, Vives raised 8 million oysters in a spacious, protected growing area of 120 hectares (or 266,520 acres). With, on average, one in 10 oysters producing a pearl, harvests numbered 800,000 pearls a year until 1914 when the Mexican Revolutionary Army destroyed his farm-leaving his 1,000 workers jobless. Mexico returned to limbo as a pearl producer.

The Great Morality
In the 1930s, three large pearl fisheries were established along the Sonoran coast-most of them focused on the Pteria sterna (or rainbow-lipped) rather than, as in the past, the Pinctada mazatlanica (or black-lipped) pearl oyster. Although the former has a smaller shell and therefore produces smaller pearls than the latter, it tends to produce multi-colored pearls. So divers started to concentrate on gathering these pearls, selling most of them locally to merchants and tourists.

By 1935, it looked as if Mexico's pearl industry might stage a comeback. Then disaster struck. In 1936, pearl oysters began unaccountably dying by the thousands, first in the northern part of the Gulf of California, then year-by-year farther and farther south. When in 1940 the Mexican government banned all oyster fishing in the Sea of Cortez, farmers had already named this plague "the Great Mortality.

For years, conspiracy buffs believed that the Great Mortality was part of a Japanese plot to wreck Mexico's pearl industry by poisoning its oyster beds. Today marine biologists explain the catastrophe as an eco-crisis caused when Colorado's Hoover Dam began operating in 1935. By holding back Colorado River waters from the Gulf of California, it was deprived of essential nutrients. This, in turn, starved the plankton on which oysters feed and began a rapid chain reaction that quickly killed off most pearl oysters.

By the 1960s, Mexico was a forgotten pearl power. Then, in the 1970s, a remarkable rebirth began.

A Black Pearl Renaissance
Traditions change slowly, especially in the ultra-conservative jewelry industry. After World War II, when the Japanese cultured pearl became the dominant pearl variety, there was little or no diversity in jewelry stores when it came to this gem. Baby-boomers grew up thinking all pearls were perfectly round, toothpaste white, and shiny like ball bearings. This was the Mikimoto ideal and it dominated for decades.

Gradually, jewelers who had once stocked black pearls and other exotic breeds lost interest in any but Japanese pearls. True, jewelers occasionally experimented with free-formed freshwater pearls. But, mostly, pearls were Japanese and nothing else.
Then, in the 1970s, a handful of upper-echelon jewelers began to carry newly produced strands of black pearls that were cultured in Tahiti. Slowly, over the next two decades, as more and more farms in Tahiti began production, black pearls Attracted the attention of sophisticated women who loved their luscious colors.

Aquaculturists in Mexico paid close attention to the black pearl renaissance, even inviting a team of Japanese experts to Sonora in 1979 to conduct a pearl-culturing feasibility study. The delegation concluded that the Gulf of California was ideal for farming ventures. They recommended reliance on the Pteria sterna pearl oyster because it would produce a greater range of colors than was produced in Tahiti.
The stage was set for a comeback of Mexican black pearls.

Mexican Mastery
The Cortez Pearl challenges much conventional wisdom about pearls. First, this masterpiece of Mexican aquaculture has proved that the Japanese way to culture pearls-used throughout the world-is not the only way.

To do so, four marine biologists-Sergio Farell, Manuel Nava, Douglas McLaurin and Enrique Arizmendi-had to invent a Mexican way. In April 1995, using only their own know-how, this foursome harvested the first small crop of round cultured black pearls using Pteria sterna oysters. Their choice of this mollusk was revolutionary since it was assumed that only members of the genus Pinctada should, and could, be used for pearl-culturing.

Equally impressive, given the fact that the wild Pteria sterna had been classified an endangered species in 1994, the Guaymas growers developed a method to breed ample numbers of these oysters to meet their needs. Pause here to admire the achievements of the Cortez pearl farm:

• The Cortez pearl farm is the first full-scale A-to-Z pearl-culturing operation in the Western Hemisphere.
• The Cortez pearl farm saved a major species of mollusk from extinction.
• The Cortez pearl farm pays such close attention to the oysters it breeds and later implants for pearl-culturing that mortality rates are enviously minimal.
• The Cortez pearl farm has added significantly to the color range of black pearls.
• The Cortez pearl farm produces limited-edition harvests of round, semi-round and baroque pearls-none of which are ever enhanced to improve appearance.

The Ultimate Black Pearl
The Cortez Pearl is like no other black pearl-in quality or quantity. That's because it's produced using the Pteria sterna, a mollusk known for its great range of colors-the widest of any oyster used for culturing black pearls.

According to Enrique Arizmendi, "You'll see a spectrum of hues that runs from a very light opalescent gray, to golden bronze, greens and blues, violets and purples, even jet-black with ever-present overtones of rose-violet and blue-green." But the rainbow doesn't end there. "Look for unique olive-green, deep-purple, abalone-cyan and burgundy colors also," Arizmendi adds, for extra wow, Cortez pearls fluoresce orange under ultraviolet light. That makes them even more sensational in daylight.

Besides a greater array of color, the Cortez stands apart from other black pearls with its lighter tone. Put parcels of South Sea black pearls against parcels of Mexican black pearls and you will see at a glance that the latter are more intermediate between white and black when rated on a light-to-dark scale.

As for shape, only 5% are round with baroques comprising 50% of farm output. Semi-rounds and semi-baroques make up the rest.

Last but not least, the Cortez pearl boasts excellent nacre thickness. Unlike Japanese pearls whose nacre is relatively thin (at or under 0.5 millimeters), Cortez pearls have thick lustrous nacre-usually between 1.5 and 2 millimeters. Such nacre layers are second to none.
At present, the Guaymas farm is concentrating on quality rather than quantity, growing pearls for anywhere from 18 to 26 months to assure very good nacre accumulation. "The idea," says Arizmendi, "is to make the Cortez pearl the world's ultimate black pearl. The mesmerizing beauty of the Cortez pearls from the first few harvests, with delicate hues seen only in these rare treasures, show that he has succeeded.

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