I tend to be an over planner when we have visitors to our home in San Carlos. I simply want to highlight all of the attractions in our community that make Guaymas/San Carlos such a special place. I also want my guests to look beyond the unfinished building projects and the trash blowing around in vacant lots. Unfortunately, it is sometimes easier to see the negatives than the positives, and it is important to me that friends and relatives are given the opportunity to see past what may be right in front of them.
One of my very favorite places to take visitors is La Granja de Perlas del Mar de Cortez, the Pearl Farm. And no, it is not because I am hoping they will thank me for my hospitality with a necklace or a bracelet. I am most definitely not a jewelry person. I typically wear the same pair of earrings for at least six months before it even occurs to me to change them. It is the story behind the success of this business: the history, the science, and the sheer will and patience, that makes this a must stop on any Guaymas tour. The jewelry just happens to be an incredible bonus.
That story begins in the 1600’s, when Spanish conquistadors first arrived in this area of the Sea of Cortez. They could not help but notice the beautiful pearls worn by the Seri and Yaqui Indians. At first they were content to trade for the gems, but eventually, as demand increased, the Spanish enslaved the Indians and began fishing for the pearls “”themselves”. The Yaqui were known to be the best pearl divers, and the Spanish took full advantage of their skills. By the 1800’s, the oyster beds between Kino Bay and Guaymas were completely wiped out. The Spanish simply moved across the sea to the Baja peninsula. In 1940 the Mexican government completely banned pearl fisheries, hoping to preserve the oysters that remained. It looked like the end for the Sea of Cortez pearls.
Fortunately, two students at Tec de Monterrey University in Guaymas had other ideas. Douglas McLaurin, a biochemistry engineering student, and his partner, developed a business model based on their belief that the cultivation of Sea of Cortez pearls was possible. Based on his own research, their professor had little faith that their endeavor would be successful. The pair earned a “C” on the project. They did not let the mediocre grade deter them. In 1991, they began experimenting with the Rainbow Lipped Oyster on the campus of Tec de Monterrey and in Bacochibampo Bay in Guaymas.
The intricate and time consuming process is detailed here. In short, it takes four years from start to finish for a Sea of Cortez Pearl to grow. The oysters are moved four different times, as they develop, starting out in “kiddie condominiums” and eventually graduating to individual “apartments”. Their shells need to be cleaned every eight weeks, as barnacles and other sea creatures can attach to them and cause damage and/or death. Talk about labor intensive! The team today still relies on the expertise of the Yaqui people in providing care to the oysters as they grow.
At the age of two, the oysters are strong enough to handle the introduction of a nucleus. A 30 second operation is performed, where a spherical nucleus is implanted into the mantle of the oyster. A hemispherical pearl may be cultivated by cementing a flat-sided nucleus directly onto the shell. The shell is opened just enough for a very small tool to be inserted inside. Quick, steady, and precise. The grain of sand myth is an insult to the skill required of these men. And there are no guarantees. The oysters go back into the water for another eighteen months!
Today, Douglas and his partners, Enrique Arizmendi and Manuel Nava, farm one square hectare with 200,000 oysters under cultivation. Their process has been honored with a Full Product Integrity Rating from the Fair Trade Gem Federation- -the only pearl farm in the world with this designation. This is due to the fact that their pearls are not processed with chemicals, bleach, or by burning. They are merely rinsed under tap water once harvested. The owners also recognize the importance of being good environmental stewards and promoting a respectful labor environment.
La Granja de Perlas typically produces about four kilograms of pearls a year, making them the rarest in the world. Any pearls that do not meet product standards are returned to the ocean. And those that do make the cut are used in the design of some of the most beautiful jewelry in the world. The partners work with artists in the creation of very unique pieces, all available for purchase on site. And I have to admit, each time I visit, I become more of a jewelry person.
I scheduled a nine o’clock tour for my aunt, uncle, and myself. The two of them looked at me like I was crazy. Fortunately, Perlas del Mar de Cortez offers multiple tours daily to accommodate all guests, even those who like to sleep in!