It is fitting that Mexico's most successful cultured pearl farm ever should be located in the Sea of Cortez. There in 1533, Hernan Cortez, the Spanish conquistador who 13 years earlier had defeated the Aztec nation and claimed Mexico for the Spanish Crown, launched the first of three pearl expeditions-the last, in 1536, led by Cortez himself.
The Spaniard wasn't looking for the white pearls found by the ton off of Venezuela. Nor was he looking for the pretty pink conch pearls of the Caribbean. He was looking for a unique variety of dark gray pearl-many with purple, green and blue overtones-that he had often seen worn by the natives of Mexico.
Cortez had an inspired hunch that Mexico's black pearls would add wide diversity to the then rather limited color spectrum of this gem. Most pearls were white, cream or yellow. Mexican pearls often boasted striking eggplant-purple, sky-blue and peacock-green colors in addition to the pewter-grey or jet-black varieties. Cortez gambled that shipments of black pearls would be just as welcome by his royal sponsors as shipments of white pearls.
Keep in mind that pearls were the most coveted gem in Europe at the time. Indeed, just before he sailed for the Indies in 1492, Christopher Columbus asked King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella for a list of their most preferred plunder. Pearls were at the top-ahead of gold and silver. Cortez, who was always embroiled in political intrigue, knew pearl cargo would help keep him in favor with his patron: Charles V, king of Spain and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.