Historical Reading List: Pearls from the Sea of Cortez in Mexico

Pearls Sea of Cortez Mexico
This illustration of pearl diving in the Gulf of California appeared in the 7 August 1869 edition of Harper’s Weekly Magazine (Vol. 13, No. 658, p. 508).

When the Spanish explorers first sailed into the Sea of Cortez (or Gulf of California; also referred to as the Mare de la Perlas [Sea of Pearls]) along the western coast of Mexico in the 1530s, they found the local native peoples wearing necklaces that contained pearls of many colors which the latter held in esteem for ornamentation. Locating and harvesting these pearls became a priority as the explorers tried to establish permanent settlements on the arid peninsula now known as Baja California. For the next four centuries, this body of water was the richest source of natural pearls in the world, and this production greatly influenced the history of Baja California. Up until the time of Mexican independence in 1821, thousands of pearls were sent from the New World to Europe on a regular basis, where they were incorporated into the regalia of the European nobility.

The pearling industry expanded in the mid-1800s when businessmen hired local Indians as divers to recover pearls from the shallow waters. In the later part of the nineteenth century, more modern diving equipment and techniques were introduced in the region. Today, however, very few natural pearls are recovered from the Sea of Cortez due to overfishing over many years. However, in recent decades several companies have been involved with culturing pearls mainly in the waters extending from La Paz near the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula northward to Guaymas of the eastern shore in the state of Sonora.


This reading list was compiled to give you an opportunity to learn more about the history of pearls from the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. A number of the articles were published in the 1800s and early 1900s – when many classical gem deposits of historical importance were discovered – and gemology and mineralogy became sciences. The list is presented in chronological order to emphasize the development of ideas over time. The list is not comprehensive, but a compilation of the some interesting gemological information that has often been forgotten or overlooked.

Many of the articles exist in the public domain and can be found online at digital libraries such as Hathitrust, Internet Archive, or other digital repositories. More recent publications can often be found in libraries, including the Richard T. Liddicoat Gemological Library. Abstracts of these articles can usually be found on the website of the original journal or magazine, and the article itself is often available for purchase from the publisher.

Regarding the GIA library’s holdings and on-site access, please contact the GIA library in Carlsbad.

“A Natural and Civil History of California”, M. Venegas, James Riverton and James Fletcher, Publishers, London, Vol. 1, pp. 49-50, (1755).  The English translation of a book written by a Mexican Jesuit priest that had been published a year earlier in Madrid.  The book contains a brief mention of pearls in the Sea of Cortez.

“Travels in the Interior of Mexico in 1825, 1826, 1827 and 1828”, R.W.H. Hardy, H. Colburn and R. Bentley, Publishers, London, (1829).  An early description is given of the pearl fishery.

Pearl Fishery, Author unknown, Parley’s Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 6, pp. 85-87, (1833).  A brief description is given of the pearl fishery along the coast of California.

On the Pearl Fishery of Lower California, A. Forbes, The Naturalist, Vol. 4, No. 30, pp. 312-317, (1839). The author describes the early history of the pearl fishery that was controlled by the Spanish using local Indians as pearl divers who worked off of small boats that sailed out of Guaymas.  The method of pearl diving is described.  The author discusses how, in about 1825, a commercial company (formed in London) planned to use a diving bell with a flexible air tube that would allow a diver to reach greater depths and remain there for a longer period to recover the pearl oysters.

“California: A History of Upper and Lower California”, A. Forbes, Smith, Elder and Cornhill, London, pp. 64-75, (1839). This book contains a section on the pearl fishery along the coast of lower California.

José Juan: Le Pêcheur des Perles – Souvenirs des Cotes de California [Jose Juan: The Pearl Diver – Souvenirs of the California Coast], G. Ferry, Revue des Deux Mondes, Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 238-260, (1845).  An early description of the Mexican pearl fishery.

“The Treasures of the Sea”, W.H. Taylor, Van Norden & King, New York, (1848).  The pearl fisheries of Mexico are discussed on pages 5-20.

California Pearl Fishery, Author unknown, Annual of Scientific Discovery, p. 331, (1851). A brief description of the pearl fishery is given, which is conducted by divers and vessels from Acapulco and Mazatlan.

The Pearl-Divers, Author unknown, Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. 18, (November), pp. 143-145, (1851). A short story about pearl divers in the Gulf of California.  The same story appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 13, pp. 46-49, (1852).

Pearl Diving, E.G. Buffum, The Pioneer – California Monthly Magazine, Vol. 1, (January), pp. 35-39, (1854). The author describes a visit to La Paz and the methods used by local Indians to recover pearls at the nearby island of Espirito Santo.

Report on the Present State of our Knowledge with regard to the Mollusca of the West Coast of North America, P.P. Carpenter, Report of the Twenty-Sixth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, pp. 159-369, (1857).  This detailed report contains a short description of pearls from the Sea of Cortez.

Pearl Fishery, Author unknown, Arthur’s Home Magazine, Vol. 9, (April), p. 249, (1857). A brief note on pearl diving at some of the islands near Acapulco.

Pearls and Pearl Divers of the Gulf of California, Author unknown, Saint James’s Magazine, Vol. 2, pp. 289-295, (1861). The author describes pearl diving along the California coast.

Memoria sobre la Pesca del la Perla en la Baja California [Memories of the Pearl Fishery in Baja California], J.M. Esteva, Boletín de la Sociedad Mexicana de Geografía y Estadística, Vol. 10, pp. 673-694, (1863).  The author describes the pearl fishery based on a visit made in 1857.

Lower California: Its Geography and Characteristics, M.B. Brown & Company, New York, 44 pp., (1868).  This booklet gives a description of the pearl fishery in the Sea of Cortez.

“A Sketch of the Settlement and Exploration of Lower California”, J.R. Brown, H.H. Bancroft and Company, San Francisco, 200 pp., (1869).  This book contains a section of the pearl fishery in the Sea of Cortez.

On the Pearl, Coral and Amber Fisheries, P.L. Simmonds, Journal of the Society of Arts, Vol. 18, No. 896, pp. 173-183, (1870).  The Sea of Cortez pearl fishery is discussed by this author.

“Pearl-Fishing in Mexico”, H.L. Harvey, The Progressive Ages, J.A. Ruth & Company, Philadelphia, pp. 94-97, (1881). After obtaining a government concession, a contractor can hire local Indians as pearl divers.  The methods used to recover pearls are discussed.

Pearl Fisheries on the Pacific Coast, Author unknown, Jewelers’ Circular and Horological Review, Vol. 15, No. 12, p. 395, (1885). In the 1870s, recovery of pearls in the Gulf of California began to be pursued in an expanded and a more systematic way with the introduction by European merchants of the use of schooners that brought boats, diving equipment and other needed supplies to the fishery areas.  Within a few years, the use of diving apparatus put an end to the practice of the Indians to dive to recover pearls.  By using this apparatus, an individual could stay underwater for a longer period and could harvest several hundred oysters during one dive.

Report upon the Pearl Fishery of the Gulf of California, C.H. Townsend, Bulletin of the United States Fish Commission, Vol. 9, pp. 91-94, (1889). The author gives a review of the operations of the pearl fishery.

“Gems and Precious Stones of North America”, G.F. Kunz, Scientific Publishing Company, New York, 366 pp., (1890).  This book contains a section on the pearl fishery in the Sea of Cortez on pp. 218-225.

Pearl Fisheries of Lower California, G.F. Kunz, Jewelers’ Circular and Horological Review, Vol. 21, No. 6, pp 36-37 and No. 7, p. 81, (1890). A summary of the pearl fishery taken from a book on gems and precious stones.

The Pearl Divers of the California Gulf, C.H. Townsend, Californian Illustrated Magazine, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 116-125, (1892). This article presents a detailed description of the Mexican pearl fishery, which according to the author, had been operating for more than three hundred years.

Pearls and Mother-of-Pearl, C.S. Pratt, Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 49, No. 7, pp. 390-398, (1896).  The author discusses the possibility of pearl culturing in the Sea of Cortez.

Pearl Fisheries of Lower California, Author unknown, Journal of the Society of Arts, Vol. 45, No. 2342, p. 1138, (1897). According to this note, the value of the pearls found during 1896 was £70,000, and for the mussel shells an estimated value of £250,000.

In the Sea of Pearls, O.C. Ellison, Sunset Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 2, pp. 166-175, (1905). The author describes the discovery of pearls and the early history of the pearl fishery.

“The Book of the Pearl”, G.F. Kunz and C.H. Stevenson, Century Company, New York, 548 pp., (1908). This book contains a section on the pearl fisheries of Mexico.

“The Mother of California, being an Historical Sketch on the Little-known Land of Baja California”, A.W. North, P. Elder and Company, San Francisco, 169 pp., (1908).  This book contains a description of the pearl fishery.

Die Perlen der Pacificküste Südamerikas [The Pearls of the Pacific Coast of South America], Author unknown, Deutsche Goldschmiede Zeitung, Vol. 12, No. 43, pp. 388, 390, 392, (1909).  A brief article on the pearls found along the Pacific coast of South America.

Voyage of the “Albatross” to the Gulf of California in 1911, C.H. Townsend, Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol. 35, Article 34, pp. 399-452, (1916). This report of a scientific cruise to the Gulf of California contains a description of the pearl fishery near La Paz.

Pearls of the Pacific, Author unknown, Mid-Pacific Magazine, Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 176-179, (1917). This article presents a brief description of the Gulf of California pearl fishery.

Culture de L’Huitre Perlière dans le Golf de Californie [Culturing of Pearl Oysters in the Gulf of California], L. Diguet, Bulletin de la Société Nationale d’ Acclimatation de France, Vol. 66, No. 6, pp. 183-189, (1919). The author gives a report of the pearl fishery at the island of Espirito Santo.  A similar article by the same author appeared in La Nature, Vol. 48, No. 1, pp. 72-75, (1920).

The Cultivation of Pearl Oysters in Lower California, Author unknown, Jewelers’ Circular, Vol. 82, No. 1, p. 221, (1921). This article presents a brief description of the pearl oyster fishery.

Pearl Fishing Enterprises in the Gulf of California, H.R. Wagner, Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 188-203, (1930).  Article not seen.

“Spanish Voyages and Pearl Fisheries in the Gulf of California”, S.A. Mosk, University of California, Berkeley, 648 pp. (1931).  Book not seen.

The Cardona Company and the Pearl Fisheries of Lower California, S.A. Mosk, Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 50-61, (1934).  Article not seen.

Spanish Pearl-Fishing Operations on the Pearl Coast in the Sixteenth Century, S.A. Mosk, Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 18, No. 3, pp. 392-400, (1938).  Article not seen.

Capitalistic Development in the Lower California Pearl Fisheries, S.A. Mosk, Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 10, No. 4, pp. 461-468, (1941).  Article not seen.

Pearl Diving in Lower California, 1533-1830, P. Gerhard, Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 25, No. 3, pp. 239-249, (1956).  Article not seen.

Pearls and the Discovery of America, P. Francis, Lapidary Journal, Vol. 38, No. 12, pp. 1512-1516, (1985). The riches of the New World, including pearls from the Gulf of California, were an important basis for the European exploration of the Americas.

Growth of the Pearl Oysters Pinctada Mazatlanica and Pteria Sterna in Different Culture Structures at La Paz Bay, Baja California Sur, Mexico, I. Gayton-Mondragon, C. Caceres-Martinez and M. Tobias-Sanchez, Journal of the World Aquaculture Society, Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 541-546, (1993).  A report is presented on a growth study of pearl oysters to determine the steps needed to develop a pearl culture program in Mexico.

History of Pearling in La Paz Bay, South Baja California, M. Cariño and M. Monteforte, Gems & Gemology, Vol. 31, No. 2, pp. 88-105, (1995).  This article reviews the early and more recent history of the pearl fishery in the Gulf of California.

Pearls and Pearl Oysters in the Gulf of California, Mexico, D. McLaurin-Moreno, E. Arizmendi, S. Farell and M. Nava, Australian Gemmologist, Vol. 19, No. 12, pp. 491-501, (1997). This article presents a review of the culturing of pearl oysters and a description of the pearls themselves in the Gulf of California.

The Beginnings of the Pearl Oyster Culture in Baja California Sur, Mexico, C. Cáceres-Martinez and J. Chávez-Villalba J., World Aquaculture, Vol. 28, No. 4, pp. 33-38, (1997).  The authors discuss pearl cultivation techniques used along the northwestern coast of Mexico.

Columbus’s Pearls, N.H. Landman, P.M. Mikkelsen, R. Bieler, B. Bronson, Natural History Magazine, Vol. 110, No. 8, pp. 12-14, (2001). This article summarizes a book by the same authors on the discovery and exploitation of pearls in the New World.

Zuchtperlen vom Golf von Kalifornien, Mexiko [Cultured Pearls from the Gulf of California, Mexico], L. Kiefert, Gemmologie: Zeitschrift für den Deutschen Gemmologischen Gesellschaft, Vol. 51, No. 2/3, pp. 121-132, (2002). The author describes the gemological properties of cultured pearls from this region.

Five Centuries of Mexican Pearls, D. McLaurin-Moreno, D. Arizmendi, and E. Castillo, Australian Gemmologist, Vol. 21, No. 5, pp. 190-201, (2002).  The authors present a historical review of the Baja California pearl fishery.  The same article appeared in the International Pearling Journal, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp. 6-16, (2002).

Cultured Pearls from the Gulf of California, Mexico, L. Kiefert, D. McLaurin-Moreno, E. Arizmendi, H.A. Hänni and S. Elen, Gems & Gemology, Vol. 40, No. 1, pp. 26-38, (2004). The authors review the history of natural and cultured pearl farming, and they discuss the gemological properties of the cultured pearls from this area.

The Value of Evidence about Past Abundance: Marine Fauna of the Gulf of California through the Eyes of 16th to 19th Century Travellers, A. Sáenz-Arroyo, C.M. Roberts, J. Torre, M. Cariño-Olvera and J.P. Hawkins, Fish and Fisheries, Vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 128-146, (2006).  The authors discuss observations on marine fauna, including pearl oysters, made over the past three centuries by explorers, naturalists and other visitors to the Gulf of California.

Exploitation of Pearl Fisheries in the Spanish American Colonies, E.O. Garcia, De Re Metallica, Vol. 13, pp. 19-33, (2009).  This paper describes the exploitation of pearl oysters beginning in the early 1500s that was carried out in the Spanish colonies in the New World, including in the Sea of Cortez.

Perles de Culture de la Mer de Cortez: Les Belles Inconnues [The Culturing of Pearls in the Sea of Cortez: The Beautiful Unknown], I. Reyjal, Revue de l’Association Française de Gemmologie, No. 179, pp. 17-22, (2012).  A report is given on modern pearl culturing in the Gulf of California.

Perlas del Mar de Cortez: Cultured Pearls from Mexico, E. Arizmendi, S. Karampelas and M. Nava, InColor Magazine, No. 32 (Summer), pp. 26-32, (2016).  The authors give a current status report on the cultured pearl industry in the Sea of Cortez.

“A History of Nacre and Pearls in the Gulf of California”, M. Monteforte and M. Cariño-Olvera, Coastal Heritage and Cultural Resilience, pp. 789-112, (2018).  Book not seen.

Dr. James Shigley is a distinguished research fellow at the Gemological Institute of America in Carlsbad, California.