A Conversation with Enrique Arizmendi Castillo, Director Research and Development at Perlas Del Mar De Cortez

by Reema Farooqui

Perlas Del Mar De Cortez, is a pearl farm located in the idyllic and very picturesque Bacochibampo Bay in Guaymas, Sonora in Mexico and is the only farm in the world to produce the lovely Sea of Cortez Pearls. Harvested from the Pteria Sterna (Rainbow Lipped Oyster), the beautiful Sea of Cortez Pearl with its different assortment of colours and its distinct and sublime iridescence, is absolutely unique and highly valued by pearl lovers all over the world. Alongside pearl cultivation, Perlas Del Mar De Cortez also conducts year round tours of the pearl farm. As an organisation, Perlas Del MAR De Cortez engages in fair trade practices and this is reflected in its three core values -product integrity, social responsibility and care for the environment.

On the blog today, we meet Enrique Arizmendi Castillo, one of the three founders of Perlas Del Mar de Cortez. Currently, he is Director of Research and Development at Perlas Del Mar De Cortez. Enrique very kindly took time out from his busy day to answer my questions about pearl farming and of course, the exquisite Sea of Cortez pearl.

Mabe Pearls at Perlas Del Mar De Cortez

Starting a pearl farm sounds like a very enterprising and courageous venture, especially since there had been no pearl cultivation in Mexico (and all of North America) for nearly a hundred years! What drew you to this challenging and exciting endeavor?

We were studying a major of Biochemistry in Marine Resources in Guaymas and, one day, while diving, we came across this beautiful nacreous shell which triggered the question Why is nobody growing pearls in Mexico? This question is the very start, that very moment we realized the opportunity and the challenge.

Later, we learned about the historical part of the pearl in the Sea of Cortez and the many difficulties it meant for the fishery and the pearl farms that developed here. Of course, we thought that we were going to overcome everything, we were young and did not hesitate to accept the challenge of doing it but, very important, under our own set of rules to create an organization that would promote decency in all our relations, be it with nature, with workers, with clients, with partners, with the rules of our country, and also, between women and men inside the company. It is not uncommon for young people starting a new company to have utopic ideas about how relations at work should be.

Pearl oyster maintenance and work on the farm-Perlas Del Mar De Cortez

What was the first harvest of the Sea of Cortez pearls like and what did you feel when you saw the first batch? Have the pearl harvests changed over the years, and if so, how?
The first harvest of pearls was in 1995, it was part of an experimental batch of pearl oysters, we were still discovering many things about the culture of this species. The three of us were sitting in a circle each one opening the pearl oysters he had grafted, it was a moment of despair, we were not finding any pearl, and then, all the sudden, one small pearl fell to floor and bounced a couple of occasions before rolling. It was unclear from which pearl oyster had it fallen from. The dispute about the fatherhood of that pearl persist to this very day.

So, the first batch was only one pearl, but we knew we wanted to start a pearl farm because we could rely on Mabes while we developed the round pearl graft in Pteria sterna.

The first commercial harvest happened in the year 2000 and in these 19 years we have seen several changes: Pearls are bigger, more colorful and they have a smoother skin now. We can harvest up to 4 thousand pearls in a year.

Pearl Harvest at Perlas Del Mar De Cortez

If today you were given an opportunity to go back to 1991, just as you were about to start with the pearl farm, what is the one piece of advice that you would give to your younger self?

I do not know, one can always be smarter, but that part of recklessness and ingenuity were essential to keep trying and come with innovative ideas.

One can always be wiser, but if we knew it would be such a difficult road, we could have deserted.

The beautiful Sea of Cortez Pearl from your farm is never subjected to any physical or chemical treatment. Why is this so important to you as a producer and why should this be important to pearl buyers?

It is important because of subtleties of the pearl. A pearl that has not been polished conserves the microscopic grooves that can create a little refraction of light that adds to the complexity of the beauty of the pearl allowing the owner to keep discovering new details on its pearl.

It is important because of integrity of the product. Nowadays we are constantly subjected to super-stimulus, for example, the artificial sweetness in our food, the artificial proportions in our body image, etc. The Sea of Cortez pearl has a natural silky luster that makes it a pleasure for the customer to have it around, it is pointless to lose that for the glassy look of the polished pearl.

It is important, also for the duration of the pearl as you are seeing it, if it is dyed and then the dye is partially lost one ends up with a horrible thing, certainly not what was purchased in the first place. The customer can enjoy its purchase for many years and then give it as an heirloom.

It is important to protect the environment, many chemical treatments involve the use of very strong substances that must be disposed later, either way this is done it adds pressure to the ecosystem around us.

Maintenance and Care of Oysters at Perlas Del Mar De Cortez

On your website, it is mentioned that it takes up to 4 years to get a harvest and during that time, constant maintenance of the health and well being of the oysters is required. What is the biggest challenge that the Pteria Sterna oysters face in the four years from cultivation to harvest?

Weather extremes are the main challenges for our pearl farm. By far the most important is when summers are too warm which usually combines with less plankton, this is the biggest threat. In 1997, when the Pacific Ocean had that very strong El Niño event, the survival rate was 3%. And it does not affect only one harvest, it affects at least the three following harvests. That compromises the whole project.

Another extreme is the hurricane, it goes around breaking and throwing around things. But even with all that scandal, they have never caused the kind of mortality that a too warm summer can cause. The hurricane means a lot of work and a lot of expenses for us, but if all pearl oysters are recuperated in the first week, there is a next harvest and a future shinier day.

Pearl cultivation requires pristine waters, but with climate change and pollution, maintaining that could be difficult. What, if any, are the environmental challenges you have faced at Perlas del Mar de Cortez and how have you succeeded in overcoming them?

The defense of the clean waters of Bacochibampo Bay is an ongoing process, but we were able to prevent the worst damage that was the installation of a yacht repair workshop in Bacochibampo Bay, our advantage was that the zoning laws have destined this Bay to tourism and aquaculture, but in this country one has to be very proactive, the laws do not activate by themselves.

Your pearl farm also opens for tours. Are these tours seasonal or do they take place all year round? Please tell us a little bit about what visitors can expect to see and experience at the pearl farm tour?

Our pearl farm tours take place all year round, but you get to see different activities depending on the season, or more than that, on the water temperature and the exact age of the pearl oysters. The most important part of the tour is the explanation about how pearl farming is done in the Sea of Cortez, from the collecting of the spat to the grafting operation, including what lies at the heart of this whole process, what we know about the causes and the formation of the natural pearl. It is a learning experience in which we put a lot of attention to the truthfulness of the information and you have the chance to see different things going on so that the knowledge is valuable and becomes part of you.

Close up of Nacre-Perlas Del Mar De Cortez

Of all the beautiful pearls that have been harvested at Perlas del Mar de Cortez, has there ever been one (or more) that really stood out to you, in terms of beauty or colours or uniqueness?

I remember a red pearl which had a very bright peculiar tone I never saw again. The grafter of that pearl was Sergio Farell, the professor of the university that accepted us as his students in the master’s program.

I remember a pearl that went to Tel Aviv, it was a very lustrous drop that changed colors from top to bottom.

Last year’s necklace had the best combination ever of big, round, colorful pearls, that strand went to Mexico City and was christened as “Mar Bermejo” another old name of this Sea of Cortez or Gulf of California. The pearls were incredibly unique, we separated them for up to four years to make that strand.

I have a collection of pearls that all came from the mantle of a unique donor. They are a remarkable group because while we can see that they all share some smoky tone, they end up being of all different colors.

Ten days ago, we finished harvesting and this year I separated three pearls a big (for our pearl oyster 12 x 14 mm is huge) colorful drop; a very lustrous soft baroque with beautiful colors; and, a highly intense burgundy red 11 x 12 mm drop. They are something special and I decided to keep them with all the information of the grafter.

If you were given an opportunity to collaborate on a collection with a Jewelry designer or a Jewelry House, solely featuring the Sea of Cortez Pearls, who would it be and why would you like to work with them?

I enjoy following the creations that designers and jewelers make around the world, it is a cascade of beautiful ways of presenting or incorporating pearls. We have not set already a Jewelry house as our favorite, but we are not insensitive to the importance of those jewelry houses that determine what is “Joaillerie de luxe”. In the end, what determines that an opportunity would be really positive is the projection that it can give to the Sea of Cortez Pearl, but also that the whole collaboration is done in a formal, rightful way.

(The best, more sumptuous, more elegant, more original designer pieces of jewelry I have seen are in the Instagram account @thecultureofpearls like that bracelet from fioreprezioso, thank you for putting together such wonderful pieces, it is inspiring).

Sunset over the pearl farm-Perlas Del Mar De Cortez

Lastly, your gorgeous pearls and pearl jewelry is available at the shop on your farm and also online on your website, but which international jewelry and gem shows can we also expect the Perlas del Mar de Cortez pearls to attend?

We only go to the Tucson Gem Show every February. The Sea of Cortez production is limited, and the Tucson Gem Show is not only the best one for us (better results than Vegas, HK, Basel), it is also very close.

Thank you so much Enrique for taking the time to answer all my questions and also for your kind words about @thecultureofpearls! 😊

You can follow Perlas Del Mar Cotez on Instagram at @perlas_del_mar_de_cortez or visit them online at www.perlas.com.mx

All photographs courtesy Perlas Del Mar De Cortez

Any person or organization not affiliated with Perlas Del Mar De Cortez or The Culture of Pearls may not use, copy, alter or modify any of Perlas Del Mar De Cortez’s photographs used in this post, without the advance written permission of Perlas Del Mar De Cortez.

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