News & Tall Tales. 1800s.
Pearl Fisheries of the Pacific
July 19, 1852, Daily Alta California, San Francisco
From the Panama Herald
Pearl-Fisheries of the Pacific.
The principal pearl fisheries of the Pacific are those located about sixty or seventy miles from this city, in the Bay or Gulf of Panama. They were formerly the property of the Spanish crown, and were carried on under the direction of the Spanish government, being considered the same as the gold and silver mines. Fishermen were allowed the privilege of diving for pearls by paying to the government a duty called "Quinto," that is, five percent, of their earnings.
Soon after this country threw off her allegiance to Spain and assumed independent powers as part of the Republic, the duty on pearl-fishing was abolished; pearls being considered as the natural products of the sea, and like all other fish, free to all. There is, now, no duty required -- every man enjoys the same privilege in common with another, and is entitled to all the results of his labor. He can dive anywhere in the waters of the bay, and is protected in the possession of all he can in this way acquire.
The most extensive and valuable fisheries are those of the Pearl Islands. These islands were formerly called "Isla del Rey," or Kings Islands, and are so laid down and denominated on the old maps. They are now called "Isla de Perlas." The business is chiefly carried on in the archipelago of those islands, which number from sixty to seventy. The principal island is called San Miguel. It has a town of the same name, containing a population of about 1,500 inhabitants. All of these islands are more or less inhabited, and most of them have become private property. San Miguel, being the largest, is owned by a large number of persons.
There are, at this time, from twelve to fifteen hundred persons engaged in the pearl fisheries of these islands. The value of the pearls taken varies from $80,000 to $150,000 per annum, seldom less than $100,000, besides from nine hundred to one thousand tons of pearl shells, averaging, in value, $40,000. These shells were formerly esteemed as worthless, but recently they have become the chief article of export from this country, being worth from thirty to forty dollars per ton.
Diving for pearls is an interesting and at the same time dangerous pursuit. The diver generally dives in from three to seven fathoms of water, and brings up at each dive from six to twelve shells. They dive at low water, always, as the diving ground at high water has been cleared of the shells. They usually work from two hours and a half to three hours, during which time they dive from twelve to fifteen times. The best divers remain underwater from fifty eight to sixty one seconds, but the most of them can only remain under from forty-five to fifty seconds. It is altogether a mistaken idea that has gone abroad, and is now currently believed, that pearl divers can remain under water ten and fifteen minutes. We have conversed with a distinguished gentleman of this city, who has been engaged in the pearl trade upwards of thirty years, upon this point. And he assures us that the very longest time he ever knew a diver to remain under water was sixty-one seconds, and that he was induced to do so by the promise of a reward at two or three ounces doubloons.
The pearl oyster is used for food, and resembles the sand clam of the Atlantic coast. The fishermen and the natives use it both fresh, when just taken, and when preserved by being parboiled and dried. It is exceedingly palatable, and is esteemed as very good, substantial food. The preparation of preserving the oyster in this manner is very simple, and the oyster, after being preserved, is strung on a string and hung up n a cool dry place. It keeps a long time, and can afterwards be cooked in a variety of ways, as fancy or custom or appetite may suggest.
The price of pearls varies according to their purity, shape and weight -- say from ten dollars to five thousand per ounce. From five hundred to fifteen hundred dollars are very frequently paid here for single pearls no weighting more than three-sixteenths of an ounce.
An English company some years since obtained a privilege to fish with diving-bells; but the enterprise proved a total failure in consequence of the unevenness of the bottom. Since then no attempt of a similar character has been made, nor has any machinery or apparatus ever been used to bring up the shells.
No doubt whatever exists as to the great abundance of the pearl oyster in the waters of the Archipelago, though at so great a depth as to defy the skill of the diver. By means of a submarine armor, or by the use of a proper machine constructed for the purpose, it connection with a sub-marine armor, we have no doubt that that a fortune could be realized in a very short time. The shells alone which could be thus obtained, would defray any outlay for such an apparatus and all the expenses attending such an operation, and it is the belief of many, sanctioned by the experience of old divers, that the best and largest pearls are found in deep water, it is but fair to presume that the yield would be highly profitable. An exclusive privilege could readily be obtained from the Provincial Chambers for the use of such an apparatus, and we know of nothing to hinder the successful prosecution of an enterprise of this kind. We know a gentleman of wealth and high respectability, residing in this city, who would be willing to unite with a competent person, or with a company, to engage in such an enterprise and whose facilities and knowledge upon the subject are unequalled for all its practical purposes.
The Pearl Islands are considered remarkably healthy, quite fertile, producing all the ordinary vegetables and fruits of the country, and the inhabitants, who are mostly black, are kind, hospitable and inoffensive.
Pearls: A Natural History
Neil H. Landman and Paula Mikkelsen
Pearls is a spectacular book blending history, science, and the jeweler's art to celebrate these natural treasures. This lavishly illustrated volume, with new color photography and archival images, traces the natural and cultural history of pearls around the world. Published to accompany an exhibition organized by the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Field Museum in Chicago, Pearls begins with the earliest pearl artifacts found in Mesopotamia and discusses how pearls are formed, in nature and by humans, the ways different cultures have used pearls in literature, paintings, religious objects, and sculptures, and, of course, pearls as personal adornment.