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A review: The History of Pearls in the Gulf of California, Mexico Part 3

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  • A review: The History of Pearls in the Gulf of California, Mexico Part 3

    THE FIRST COMMERCIAL PEARL OYSTER FARM IN THE WORLD

    It is at this particular crossroad that we find a Mexican-French Medical Doctor by the name of Gastón Vivès, attempting what very none had tried before: initiate a commercially viable, large-scale pearl oyster farm to produce shell and pearls. The Vivès family owned a pearl fishing armada in La Paz, Baja California Sur, and they were experiencing diminishing profits every year, thus wanting to revert this trend we find Gastón Vivès cultivating the idea of farming pearl oysters. In 1896 the Vivès brothers launched a Company named “Compañía Criadora de Concha y Perla” (or CCCP, for short) for which they obtained Federal concessions to utilize the Island of “Espíritu Santo” (just across from the Bay of La Paz) and the local Black-lip pearl oyster (Pinctada mazatlanica) for his operation.
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    Figure 1: A large wild shell (20 cm in length) of the Panamic Black Lip pearl oyster (Pinctada mazatlanica) with three cultured pearls that were produced at the Guaymas pearl farm. Photo by author.

    What made the CCCP special was the use of innovative technologies, some of which would seem naïve today but nevertheless quite creative. These included:
    1. Spat collector cages.
    2. Rearing inside wire-mesh baskets inside covered canals.
    3. Security personnel to remove predators.
    4. Grow out phase on open ocean, near islands to improve water flow.
    5. Use of a “Personal Armor” for adult pearl oysters.
    This farm held some 8 to 10 million Mexican black-lipped oysters (P. mazatlanica) under aquaculture conditions, it was located within an inlet and mangrove forest lagoon known as the Bay of San Gabriel on the Island of Espíritu Santo; this island is located near the greater Bay of La Paz in southern Lower California. The total aquaculture area of the farm was of 120 hectares, and it had between 800 to 1,000 workers during its heyday.

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    Figure 2: A view of the pearl culturing canals (covered with thatched roofs to reduce water temperature) on Isla Espiritu Santo, Baja California Sur. Photo by Townsend (1914).

    But unlike our modern-day product - the cultured pearl - Dr. Vivès would produce natural pearls. As the Gulf of California once had abundant “placeres”, or sites where pearl oysters and their pearls were known to be abundant, Vivès was wise enough to select one of these former sites for his farm’s location.

    Spat collection took place by constructing large 6-tiered wooden boxes covered in chicken-mesh and filled with “chivato” bushes (Calliandra spp.) and large adult black-lip oysters on every tier; Vivès believed that using adult oysters promoted “spat” (juvenile oyster) settlement on the bushes. The boxes were brought back after a couple of months in the sea and then workers were made to separate and place the juveniles inside small metal mesh-wire boxes with pebbles on the bottom, so the oysters would attach to these. The boxes were then placed inside the canals that were built inside the mangrove-lagoon, roofing could be removed during winter to allow the sun to warm the waters and added during summer to keep them cooler. “Armed guards” were placed during the day on the canals, to remove predators such as crabs, octopi, and snails from devouring the small mollusks.

    Once the black lips attained an adequate size, they would be taken out of the lagoon to be placed in other sites close to the island, placed on top of carefully prepared bottoms. In some instances, slabs of cement with slits were placed on the seabed, and the oysters placed inside these just like bread slices are placed inside a toaster. This would offer additional protection. The larger, more valuable oysters would even be given an experimental “body armor” made from metal sheet, with sharp spikes to deter predators. These were outfitted with cork-pieces to allow the armored oyster to remain upright -their traditional stance- while the animal would secrete their byssus and attach itself firmly. The mollusks would be allowed to grow to a harvest size of 12-14 cm (4.7-5.5 inches) in a couple of years. The whole farming process took between 6 to 8 years.
    Pearl Oyster Armor

    Figure 3: Reconstruction of one of Vivès’s “pearl oyster armors” detailing the way the pearl oyster would fit inside these. Original Photo by Townsend (1914), edited by the author.

    After harvesting, the shells were cleansed, left to dry under shade, graded and boxed for exports, mainly to European markets. This was the main and most stable income of the company. Some reports suggest that Vivès was able to harvest between 9-11% yield of natural pearls from his farm-raised pearl oysters. If one considers that -for several decades- the average yield of commercial value pearls from a cultured pearl harvest was within the order of 10 to 20%, you can begin to appreciate this most significant accomplishment.

    After harvesting, cleaning, and grading the pearls, came the moment to sell them. The lower grade and smaller “seed pearls” (known as “morralla”) were sold locally and would find their way to the national market. Better, mid-range grade pearls would be sold in the large cities of Guadalajara (which acted as the trade-hub for pearls) and Mexico City. The finer, gem grade pearls, would be sold in New York City and Paris, France, with Dr. Gastón Vivès traveling on train first and then on a trans-Atlantic boat, his pearls inside a secure briefcase that had been shackled to his wrist. There are no accounts of the use of his pearls on particular pieces of jewelry, but I believe there are at least two items that could be traced to the CCCP due to their time frame: A Tiffany made black-pearl pendant commissioned to famed jewelry designer Paulding Farnham and that was presented at the 1889 Paris Exhibit and the main pearl on the forehead of Oaxaca’s Patron Saint, the Virgin of Solitude. The later has an interesting story, being stolen just over a decade ago in one of the largest sacral-art thefts in Mexico in recent times.
    Tiffany Gulf of California Black Pearl Pendant


    Figure 4: Photo of the Tiffany’s Black Pearl and Diamond pendant, designed by Farnharm and exhibited at the 1889 Paris Exhibit. Photo published in Loring (2006).


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