A review: The History of Pearls in the Gulf of California, Mexico Part 4


There was a positive ecological aspect of this venture: the pearl farm itself acted as a gigantic breeding station for the pearl oysters. When you consider that this farm contained between 8 to 10 million pearl oysters and let us say that at least one-third of these had reached sexual maturity (2.6 to 6.6 million individuals), it is very evident to see the astounding positive impact that this commercial operation would have in restocking the Gulf of California’s pearl beds and even reinvigorate the pearl beds and fisheries.
Workers collecting pearl oyster spat in Mexico

Figure 1: Workers collecting pearl oyster “spat” from some of the tiers from a “spat collector box”. Photo by Townsend (1914).

But, on the other hand, the value of human life was not up to the same standards. The period known as “Porfiriato” in Mexican history refers to a timeframe between 1880 and 1910 when Mexican President-Dictator Porfirio Díaz opened Mexico up to large-land owners (Hacendados) and foreign companies and interests, all above the livelihood of the Mexican people, who were slaves in all but word.
View of the Pearl Farm in Mexico
Figure 2: A view of one of the work areas of the CCCyP and of the mesh-wire baskets used in the pearl farming canals for growing young pearl oysters.

The CCCP had a great host of “workers” that were paid poorly and had to purchase their barest necessities from the “tienda de raya” (“company store”) at hiked-up prices, they were also subject to physical and emotional abuse. Let me make clear that this was not just this venture, but quite possibly most enterprises in all of Mexico, such as the “Henequeneras” (Haciendas that grew the Henequén agave, Agave fourcroydes, to produce fiber, extremely popular to produce bags, cots, hammocks, and shoe-soles) were even considered as “extermination camps” for the mostly native-American “workers”. Thus, employees were not faithful to the company and were quite embittered over their situation. It stands to reason as to why the Mexican Revolution took place as a grassroots social revolt and led to open war against this oppressive neo-feudal system.

On July 18th of 1914, a part of the Mexican Revolutionary force, led by Colonel Cornejo, marched unto the Capital City of South Baja California, La Paz; and by the time they left, Mexico was no longer one of the world’s most important supplier of natural pearls: both the army and the company’s workers seized the farm and all its facilities by storm, blowing up the CCCP’s vaults to obtain pearls and cash first, and then every single of the farm’s oysters were harvested for pearls; these gems would later be used to purchase weapons and ammunitions to continue the conflagration, which raged until its official closure in 1920.

The Vivès family had been an integral part of the dictatorial regime, receiving abundant benefits both in economic and political power, and was now a victim of this social movement. Gastón Vivès himself barely escaped death at the hands of a lynch mob, by escaping on a dingy and asking asylum to a U.S. Navy vessel that was stationed at the bay of La Paz.

As fate would have, at around the same time as the birth of Mexico’s pearl farming venture, but on the opposite side of the planet, another man of vision, Kokichi Mikimoto introduced humanity to the modern-day cultured pearl. After this event, the world would no longer remain the same, for pearl oysters could be ‘surgically operated’ to produce considerable numbers of pearls. A series of related events then made it possible to produce cultured pearls in several other species of pearl oysters from around our oceans, but Mexican pearls were never included under these schemes, thus the Pearls from the Gulf of California would remain elusive for most of the 20th century.
Remains of the Pearl Farm in Espíritu Island, Mexico

Figure 3: Ruins of the pearl culture canals on Isla Espiritu Santo, Baja California Sur. Photo taken by the author in 2012.