Kokichi Mikimoto, founder of the famous Akoya Pearls, always used to say “Never give up and always keep working, and someday you will have results”. This motto is the heart and soul of Cozumel Pearl Farm in the Mexican Caribbean.
Not known for pearling, the Caribbean has drawn world renowned attention as a top holiday destination for decades. But its turquoise and aquamarine waters hold a rarer much more elegant gem that few know about.
The Cozumel pearl.
Grown in the Caribbean’s only operational pearl farm – Cozumel Pearl Farm – conservation efforts are bringing back Pinctata radiata, also known as the Atlantic Pearl Oyster. Previously on the verge of extinction in the Caribbean this oyster species had all but disappeared from the region.
Now, the Caamaño family’s dream of conservation, preservation and sustainability has come to life in an eco-friendly pearling operation that is saving this little oyster.
In pearling terms, the Cozumel Pearl Farm is still in its infancy. Established in 2001 it was devastated by hurricane Wilma in 2005 only to bounce back stronger than ever. Rebuilt and now in the research stage, they are unlike other pearl farms.
Learning from hurricane Wilma’s disastrous effects, Francisco Caamaño (affectionately called Pancho) invented an ingenious new anchoring system for the oyster’s growing towers. Offering greater support fastened onto the ocean floor they lessen the impact strong tropical storms and unpredictable weather wreak every year during hurricane season from July through to November.
Never giving up on their dream to grow pearls in the Caribbean, another challenge was increasing the oyster’s survival rate during the seeding process. Working with this smaller oyster variety made seeding techniques more challenging. But to achieve optimal pearl production over the last several years their seeding techniques have improved increasing yield along with oyster survival rate.
During a tour led by the owners, the entire process is explained. Everything from when the oysters are first placed on towering underwater collector lines reaching for the surface through to seeding and ultimately harvesting.
Taking three to four years to produce a pearl, this is a game of patience and practice to achieve perfection. It has paid off. With the improvement of seeding techniques their annual yield has almost doubled.
Only available for purchase at the farm, the small annual yield of one to two hundred pearls makes them highly sought after. A rare salt water pearl unlike any other it shows if you reach for the stars dreams can come true.
Anyone can visit this pearl farm. You will be picked up from Cozumel’s township San Miguel de Cozumel by boat and set out for a day of exploration, relaxation and education. A forty minute boat ride to the far northern end of Cozumel – Mexico’s largest island – brings you to a wide bay.
Only accessible by boat through a private tour with the owners themselves, this secluded bay is a place of outstanding natural beauty. Untouched by the thousands of tourists that arrive to Cozumel daily, here wildlife saunters past unphased by human presence.
Built into the environment with minimal impact, you are seated in an open sided outdoor education centre to learn all about the five aspects of what makes a perfect pearl – lustre, surface, shape, size and colour – along with the different pearl species. Afterward in the lab, seeding and harvesting procedures are demonstrated.
For pearl lovers, this morning spent with the owners is fascinating taking pearl appreciation to the next level. The conservation and preservation practices of the Cozumel Pearl Farm also support more than the oysters. Reef conservation, coral rejuvenation through careful transplanting and growing practices is also covered during the aquatic tour.
Launching off the wide tranquil white-sand beach everything is explained on the slow five minute boat ride out to the pearls. A quick safety briefing and before you know it you’re diving into the ocean to enjoy another unique experience. A speed snorkel that takes you floating over the pearls.
Holding onto a line being gently towed behind the boat, the amazing visibility of the Caribbean’s crystal clear waters allows a bird’s eye view of the oysters growing towers. Of course you are free to dive down for a closer look or to give the large sunken statue of the Holy Virgin Guadalupe a kiss which is said to bring protection and luck. She is the silent sentinel standing guard over the pearls and protecting the entire farm. A beautiful beacon in the pearl’s watery paradise.
I have travelled extensively throughout the region and these waters are the clearest, most alluring I’ve seen. This private sanctuary is every nature lover’s dream and has you itching to own one of these precious pearls.
Recent years have shown a trend towards the freer formed or asymmetrical baroque pearls. But the rumours for 2020 are that a return to a more classic setting style of single pearls will be in higher demand. This suits the Cozumel pearl perfectly as each and every owner can showcase their one-of-a-kind pearl through their own design.
On the boat ride back to San Miguel de Cozumel township at the end of the day even the most dedicated pearl lover will have fallen in love with pearls all over again.
By Bel Woodhouse, travel writer, photographer, videographer and author