La Peregrina is probably the most famous (and certainly the most expensive) pearl there has ever been. In its 500 year (give or take) history, it’s been owned and worn by queens, kings, generals and silver screen starlets. Its current owner is anonymous, having purchased it and its Cartier designed setting, in a 2011 auction. Nothing has been heard of it since… a most mysterious end for such a well-known gem! Let’s take a look back at its long and lustrous (pun intended) history.
Legend has it that La Peregrina, which translates as The Pilgrim or the Wanderer, was discovered in 1513 and has long lived up to its name. It originally weighed 223.8 grains, a staggering 55.95 carats. It was supposedly found by an African slave off the Gulf of Panama, who was subsequently rewarded with his freedom, but it’s been pointed out that there weren’t actually any African slaves in the region at that time in history. So actually, its origins aren’t entirely clear. What’s known is that it soon ended up in the possession of a Spanish King a year or two later. Whether it was Ferdinand V/I/III or Charles V/I, no one truly knows. Mostly because of the confusing numbering.
Philip II’s mother wearing the pearl
Anyway. It was by far the largest pearl ever found at the time. While Philip II (also known as Philip I… see!) was reigning over Spain in the mid-16th Century, he gave La Peregrina to Queen Mary I of England (no other numbers but she was better known as Bloody Mary) in anticipation of their marriage in 1554. Despite only lasting a further four years before she died, there are quite a few portraits of Mary in existence wearing the pearl.
Not much of a looker, Bloody Mary.
It returned to Spain after her death from influenza in 1558 and was subsequently worn by a succession of royal Spanish beauties – both princesses and queen consorts.
Margaret of Austria, Queen of Spain, 1606 (Wikipedia)
Elisabeth of France, Queen of Spain wearing the pearl c.1625 (Wikipedia)
Nothing much more happened to La Peregrina for over 250 years until 1808, when the famous Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Spain and in a fit of fairness and equality installed his own brother Joseph Bonaparte on the throne. Joseph Bonaparte later fled Spain for the USA but took the pearl with him – which is how it first came by its moniker ‘the Wanderer’. Leaving it to his son, aka Charles Louis Napoleon (or soon-to-be Emperor Napoleon III) upon his death, this later Bonaparte wasn’t so good at managing money and in around 1840 during an exile in London, he ended up selling it to James Hamilton, the 2nd Marquess and later Duke of Abercorn. His wife Louisa was the lucky recipient.
And in that family La Peregrina remained for over 100 years, until it was acquired by its most famous owner. But not before it had been to lots of fabulous parties… the only problem being that it is such a heavy pearl that it fell out of its setting at least twice – once down the back of a sofa at Windsor Castle and once at a ball at Buckingham Palace! This may have lead to its repolishing and drilling in 1913, which means it now weighs 203.84 grains but is firm in its setting. Still a good old heft.
Last but not least (mysterious new owner excepted), in 1969 La Peregrina was bought from the Hamilton family at a Sotheby’s auction by Richard Burton, then husband to Hollywood starlet Elizabeth Taylor. At the time, it was suspended as a pendant on a delicate pearl-link necklace. She had it redesigned on a on a finer chain. After nearly being swallowed by one of their pet dogs (read the whole tale here), the Taylor-Burtons decided to have the necklace re-designed by Cartier and the resulting masterpiece of pearls, rubies and diamonds is how it’s remained ever since.
Dame Elizabeth passed away in March 2011 and her jewellery was auctioned by Christies in December the same year. La Peregrina sold for over $11million, smashing the estimates of $2-3million. It’s no longer the biggest pearl in the world, nor even its second claim, the biggest natural pear-shaped pearl, but it is by far the most famous.
We just hope her new owner loves and appreciates her fascinating past!
…or maybe… just maybe… it isn’t the same pearl at all…