Few pearls have created more excitement, enthusiasm and even obsession as the world renowned “La Peregrina.” The pear-shaped pearl is believed to be one of the most symmetrical natural pearls ever found. It is steeped in history, glamour and folklore. From a pathway to freedom to an extraordinary Valentine gift, this world-traveling pearl has quite the story to tell…
History of La Peregrina
La Peregrina was originally found off the coast of Panama in the mid 16th century. The popular story claims that an African slave in the Spanish colony of Panama discovered it in 1513, and it was so impressive and beautiful that the slave was freed as a reward. However, there were no slaves in Panama until years later, so either the date or the story is not completely accurate. Whoever originally found this remarkable gem, it was turned over to Don Pedro de Temez, the administrator of the Panama colony at the time. Temez hand-carried the pearl back to his Spanish homeland. He gifted it to the future King Phillip II of Spain. Phillip presented it as a bridal gift to Queen Mary I of England. In her famous 1554 portrait by Antonis Mor (now in the Prada Museum, Madrid), we see Queen Mary wearing La Peregrina as a dangling pendant to a bejeweled brooch.
Following her death in 1558, her sister Queen Elizabeth I of England returned the famous pearl, as a gesture of pre-Armada diplomacy, to the Kingdom of Spain, where it remained one of the crown jewels for some 250 years. It was worn by Spanish queens at significant historical events. Queen Margaret, wife of Phillip III wore the beloved pearl to the celebration of the 1605 peace treaty between England and Spain.
Origin of the Name – La Peregrina
In the early 1800s, Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte ruled Spain for about five years. When he was ousted following the French defeat at the Battle of Vittoria, he took some of the crown jewels with him back to France, including the famous pear-shaped pearl. According to historians, this was when the jewel received its nickname “La Peregrina – The Wanderer.” Joseph later willed the pearl to his nephew, who would become Napoleon III, Emperor of France. While exiled in England, the emperor sold the pearl to the Duke of Abercorn as a gift for his lovely wife, the Duchess Louisa Hamilton. The incredible size of the pearl, measuring approximately 17.35 – 17.90 x 25.50 mm, made it quite heavy. It often fell out of its setting. Rumor has it that the pearl was lost in the sofas at both Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace. Luckily, it was recovered on both occasions!
A Valentine Gift Like No Other
The Hamilton family owned La Peregrina until 1969 when they decided to auction the now famous pearl at Sotheby’s London. Hollywood royal and spirited romantic Richard Burton bought the pearl for $37,000. He gave it to his wife Elizabeth Taylor as a remarkable and one-of-a-kind Valentine’s Gift. Both Burton and Taylor adored La Peregrina. In fact, one of this writer’s favorite tales from Taylor’s book Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair with Jewelry (I happen to own a personally signed copy) tells the story of how she thought she had lost the pearl in their suite at Caesar’s Palace. “At one point I reached down to touch La Peregrina and it wasn’t there! I glanced over at Richard and thank God he wasn’t looking at me, and I went into the bedroom and threw myself on the bed, buried my head into the pillow and screamed. Very slowly and very carefully, I retraced all my steps in the bedroom. I took my slippers off, took my socks off, and got down on my hands and knees, looking everywhere for the pearl. Nothing. I thought, ‘It’s got to be in the living room in front of Richard. What am I going to do? He’ll kill me!’ Because he loved the piece.” Then Taylor noticed one of their puppies was chewing on something. She continues, “I just casually opened the puppy’s mouth and inside his mouth was the most perfect pearl in the world. It was—thank God—not scratched.”
Elizabeth Taylor cherished the pearl for years. She commissioned Al Durante of Cartier to re-design a pearl necklace for her. She worked closely with him to ensure a more secure and more prominent setting for La Peregrina. She treasured it until her death in 2011 . Later that same year, Christie’s presented the pearl at auction where it was sold for more than $11 million (factoring in fees) to an anonymous buyer.
Find Your New Tradition
This extraordinary pearl lived up to its name, wandering the globe and gracing the décolletage of royals and celebrities alike. No wonder it continues to capture our attention. Here at Obsessed By Pearls, we love the idea of starting new pearl traditions. What will your favorite pearl be and where will it lead you? What stories will it have to tell?
Of course, we also wonder what legacy the new anonymous La Peregrina owner will give it. That remains to be seen. But this enthusiastic fan predicts a continued glorious voyage for “The Wanderer.” Long may she travel!
Provenance, according to Christie’s
Periods of ownership of La Peregrina Pearl
Philip II, (1582-1598)
Philip III, (1598-1621)
Philip IV, (1621-1665)
Charles II (1665-1700)
Philip V (1700-1746)
Fernando VI (1746-1759)
Charles III (1759-1778)
Carlos IV (1778-1808)
Joseph Bonaparte, of France (1808-circa 1844)
Prince Louis Napoleon, of France (circa 1844-circa 1848)
Duke and Duchess of Abercorn (circa 1848-1914)
Elizabeth Taylor (1969-2011)
If you enjoyed this historical article about a famous pearl, you may also like:
3 Mysteries Behind the Famous Painting | Girl With a Pearl Earring
Pearls of Wisdom from Jewelry: The Body Transformed, The New Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Diana: The People’s Princess and Her Passion for Pearls