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Cortez Pearls
By David Federman

Six hours drive directly south of Tucson, Arizona, just off the eastern shore of the 700-mile long Pacific inlet that divides Mexico’s mainland from its Baja peninsula, is the last thing you’d expect to find: a pearl farm. Located near the town of Guaymas, in the state of Sonora, its incongruity in this vast desert region is heightened even more for those familiar with the lush bay settings of Japan’s pearl farms. But for those versed in the tempestuous history of the place, the farm comes as no surprise.

Of course, those with such knowledge wouldn’t think of calling the giant waterway what it’s called on most maps: the Gulf of California. To them, its proper name is the Sea of Cortez. There, in 1536, Herman Cortez, the Spanish soldier of fortune who 15 years earlier had defeated the Aztecs and claimed Mexico for his country, assembled a pearl fishing fleet. Mind you, he wasn’t looking for conventional white pearls, but exotic black pearls of a kind unknown before discovery of the new world.

It may seem strange to think of Cortez as a pearl hunter. But he found pearls as much a motive for exploration as any precious metal. There was plenty of precedent for such ambition. When Christopher Columbus asked King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella for a wish list of booty on the eve of his first voyage to the Americas in 1492, pearls were at the top. The ceaseless quest for this gem would eventually lead to discovery in 1515 of what were then, and for two centuries after, among the world’s largest pearl-oyster beds off the coast of Venezuela.

Pearls were as good as gold when it came to accredited forms of wealth. Cortez, who was embroiled in constant political intrigues, knew that finding a major pearl source would raise his shaky standing with his patron, Charles V, king of Spain. Despite pretensions of civilizing America’s natives, Charles’ overriding purpose for colonization of the new world was to drain it of its riches.

Unfortunately, Cortez’s pearl voyage was not among his most successful exploits. Nonetheless, the importance of his mission was that it proved the legend of black pearls which inspired it. Since then, the Sea of Cortez has been closely linked with this variety. Long before Tahiti became synonymous with the black pearl, Mexico was its primary source. Then, in 1940, overfishing forced the government to declare its two black pearl oysters—the Pinctada mazatlancia and Pteria sterna—as endangered species. The Mexican black pearl was once again a legend.

Now the legend is writing another chapter in pearl history with successful cultivation and harvesting at a farm aptly named Sea of Cortez Pearls (Perlas del Mar de Cortez).


The venture started in 1993 as a research project at the Monterrey Institute of Technology (ITESM). Four marine biologists—Sergio Farrell, Manuel Nava, Douglas McLaurin, and Enrique Arizmendi—applied to a university fund for seed money and, two years later, harvested their first crop consisting entirely of mabe, or half, pearls. In 2000, the foursome added round, or whole, pearls to the assortment.

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Cortez Pearls