New York City. March 9, 2020. It was around February 2003, at one of the smaller Tucson gem shows, when Eric Braunwart of Columbia Gem House first saw pearls from the Sea of Cortez. A peer urged him to go see them, black pearls from the rainbow-lipped Pteria sterna oyster, which are native to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. For sure, the pearls were beautiful, but it was other factors that cemented his interest.
“They were bringing back a cultural resource that had been almost wiped out, and they worked like us—ethically and sustainably,” he says, with his strict protocols, like environmental protection and fair labor practices, in mind. The Sea of Cortez pearl story was a sentimental one.
Natural Sea of Cortez pearls had been collected and exported for centuries in Mexico, until construction of the Hoover Dam depleted nutrients in the Gulf of California, ultimately affecting production. In 1939, the local government responded by banning the harvesting of natural oyster beds, and the wild Pteria sterna mollusk was eventually classified an endangered species. That is, until student marine biologists Sergio Farell, Manuel Nava, Douglas McLaurin, and Enrique Arizmendi, from the nearby Monterrey Technical Institute in Guaymas, Mexico, began studying pearl culturing in 1993.
The friends collaborated on a research project to resurrect the species and cultivate pearls after reading about their history. They collected wild spat, or baby oysters, and got to work on breeding them in a lab. After successfully breeding them and growing them to adulthood, they cultured pearls. First, blister pearls—which remain a large part of their present-day production and inventory—and by 1996, they produced some semi-round pearls. Today, the gems are sold by Perlas Del Mar de Cortez, a company founded and partly owned by the original four friends. Not surprisingly, this niche product has a small production; in 2019, about 6,000 pearls (half round to semi-round and half blister) were harvested. Nacre thickness typically ranges from 1 to 2 mm, and they are not at all treated.
McLaurin quickly realized that buyers for his pearls would be limited. “We are the only pearls that have been certified as Fair Trade,” he says. It’s a fact not lost on Braunwart, a pioneer in Fair Trade gems and the biggest reseller of them in the U.S.
Designers who seek out rare and unique gems—think Catherine Claus of Thesis Gems and Sarah Canizzaro of Kojima Pearls, among others—have prominently featured them in designs. Ana Katarina of the eponymous firm made them the focus of her tony Sea of Love collection. Canizzaro is in awe of what Perlas Del Mar de Cortez has accomplished. “They are solely responsible for bringing a species back to life and creating a flourishing underwater environment. The pearls are incredibly rare, and that farm is a special place—it’s all heart.”
Ring with Sea of Cortez pearl from Thesis Gems
Necklace with Sea of Cortez pearls from Kojima Pearls
Earrings with Sea of Cortez pearls by Ana Katarina
Braunwart takes advantage of this intangible magic by implementing a live feed during harvest. With McLaurin at the farm opening oysters and top clients watching him via a video link at a retail partner’s store, they see the pearls first and have the opportunity to buy them. “Consumers love it,” he recollected. “We will do it again in June.”
Meanwhile, tourism of the farm has become another source of revenue. To visit the farm, reach out to McLaurin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For wholesale purchase, reach out to Eric Braunwart of Columbia Gem House at email@example.com or Douglas McLaurin at Perlas Del Mar de Cortez at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For retail purchase, visit any of the website of any of the designers featured in this article or Perlas Del Mar de Cortez.
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