Margarita Island of Pearls...what was the pearling industry like in the 1930's?
The following is a summary of Erna Fergusson's visit to Margarita Island of Pearls in the 1930's. Her book called "Venezuela" includes details of her entire trip. Here I've summarized the chapter about Margarita Island.
We unconsciously collect books in our family. It seems all nine of us like them. Our son John, who's always interested in other countries picked this up this book one day and informed me of this chapter about Venezuela's pearling...as it was in the 1930's.
Margarita Island of Pearls
The Spaniards first found pearls off the island of Cubagua, near Margarita. The people of Margainta think that Christopher Columbus hid the fact of finding pearl there from the crowned heads of Spain, thereby causing his own disgrace and imprisonment.
During the time of Columbus the natives were excellent divers and soon became enslaved,forced laborers. Large beautiful pearls went to Spain..many to adorn Isabel...taking the place of her sold jewels which made Columbus' voyage possible.
A pearl the size of a dove's egg, perfect in shape with high luster was considered the prize pearl.
Cubagua, exploited, soon became a slave marketplace with nature herself pronouncing judgement on it by destroying it and drowning it forever with a cyclone. In the 1930's divers sometimes bring up bits of man made iron.
On the Margarita island of pearls in the 1930's pearl fishing was seasonal, from early October to late May every third year divers... in fact, the whole population would fish for pearl oysters. Towns would fill up with foreign dealers, mostly Turks, a few from the USA with jewelry houses in Paris getting the best pick.
Diving methods of 1930's
As many as 600 boats would depart the shores with 5-6 men on each crew. Most did what they called, "head diving,"when a man holds a stone to help him decent and dives head first, sometimes staying under for 2 minutes looking for likely pearl bearing oysters. It's guess work with no way of telling which oyster will have a pearl. A large perfect pearl can be found in a tiny oyster.
Early in the nineteenth century men designed a rake to scrap the ocean floor which also picked up stones, seaweed and the sort which was immediately thrown back
A third method is diving in full gear, having time to pick up numerous oysters.
At about 11:00 the boats come in for lunch, dumping their load, going out and coming in again at 5:00.Older divers too old for diving guard the harvested oysters. The next morning the shells are opened under watchful eyes. Finding a prize pearl raises everyone's wages.
One boat owner said laughingly, "It's the only business in the world in which if they gain, they all share alike, and if they lose, only the owner loses."
Pearls of Margarita Island of Pearls
Margarita pearls range from infinitesimal seed pearls to those weighing 20-30 grams and come in natural colors of cream, white, black, gray, yellow or pink. Baroque or misshapen pearls are usually pink.
In the 1930's most Isle of Margarita Islanders owned pearls which were a gift for a wedding, engagement, or other notable occasion. Pearls aren't worn before marriage, however, beause tradition says they'll bring tears.
In the 30's most normal pearls brought about 30¢ /carat, making a 5.5 carat pearl worth about $1.65. However, fantastic pearls have been known to bring $3,600 and even up to $15,000!
Unfortunately for the natural pearl business, is the development of methods of culturing pearls by the Japanese. Mikimoto is the one often created with this development, Natural pearls have fallen in value since.
Also in the 30's oyster shells are sent to Germany for making buttons. The Isle of Margarita also exported lots of tortoise shell in the 30's for hair combs, letter openers, etc.
Seeing pearls on Margarita Island of Pearls
In Asuncion, the capital,Erna, the author, reports seeing the statue, "Our Lady of the Valley," which was draped in a bridal veil and satin embroidered with gold and pearls.
An old lady showed her the "Virgin's Pearls" kept safe in another place, which were displayed in a gilt frame 3' square. Numerous seed pearls were embroidered on with gold intertwining a V and M. The biggest pearl was a pinkish baroque and at least a dozen other gems of good size and quality.
At the top of the frame was a pearl in the misshapen form of a human leg. The old lady from Margarita Island of pearls told the story of a pearl diver with a leg ulcer who couldn't dive any longer...the sea water irritated the ulcer. If healed, he promised the first valuable pearl he found..which was the "leg" pearl now in the frame.
The largest pearl was given in appreciation from a diver who's luck had turned around after making a pilgrimage to see the statue. The old lady had known this man personally.
Erna Fergusson visited Venezuela in the 1930's. This account is a summary of her account of visiting the Margarita island of pearls as expressed in her book, "Venezuela."
Go to main page of countries where pearls are found after reading about Margarita Island of Pearls in the 1930's.