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In 1513, an African slave discovered a perfectly symmetrical, pear-shaped, 55.95-carat natural pearl in the waters off the coast of Panama, and for the next 500+ years the treasure would wind its way through the royal boudoirs of Spain, England, France and Austria, earning it the Spanish name “La Peregrina,” or “The Pilgrim.”
Today, La Peregrina is arguably the most celebrated natural pearl of all time and one of the finest examples of June’s official birthstone.
Throughout its history, the pearl has been cherished and protected, albeit with a few exceptions. Legend has it that the pearl was once lost and then found between the cushions of a sofa at Windsor Castle. In a second instance, the pearl disappeared during a wedding reception at Buckingham Palace, only to be spotted a little later hitching a ride on the bride’s train.
But La Peregrina was nearly lost forever under the stewardship of actress Elizabeth Taylor.
In 1969, Richard Burton spent $37,000 (outbidding a prince at Sotheby’s) to buy La Peregrina for his wife, Taylor, as a gift for Valentine’s Day. In a Caesars Palace suite, Taylor had been wearing the famous pearl on a delicate pearl-and-diamond chain, but then realized it was gone.
In her book, My Love Affair with Jewelry, Taylor shared a moment-by-moment account of what happened next.
“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,” Taylor recalled. “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 her puppies munching on something.
“I just casually opened the puppy’s mouth and inside his mouth was the most perfect pearl in the world,” she wrote. “It was — thank God— not scratched.”
Shortly thereafter, Taylor commissioned Cartier to reset La Peregrina with pearls, diamonds and rubies in a majestic necklace that was to resemble the jewelry worn by Mary, Queen of Scots, in a famous portrait. The pearl’s original setting can be seen in Taylor’s cameo in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969). The new, more exquisite, setting makes brief cameos in the films Divorce His — Divorce Hers (1973) and A Little Night Music (1977).
In 2005, La Peregrina was one of 12 rare pearls featured during a six-month exhibition called “The Allure of Pearls” at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.
Taylor passed away in March of 2011 at the age of 79. Later that same year, La Peregrina headlined a high-profile auction of Taylor’s jewelry at Christie’s New York, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting the The Elizabeth Taylor Aids Foundation.
Christie’s had set the pre-sale estimate for La Peregrina at $2 million to $3 million, but enthusiastic bidding for the historic piece drove the final price to $11.8 million.
Natural pearls, such as La Peregrina, are exceedingly rare because they are created by mollusks randomly, without human intervention. When a grain of sand or similar irritant gets between the mollusk’s shell and its mantle tissue, the process begins.
To protect itself, the mollusk instinctually secretes multiple layers of nacre, an iridescent material that eventually becomes a pearl. Cultured pearls, by contrast, are created when a bead is embedded inside the body of the mollusk to stimulate nacre secretion.
Credits: Images courtesy of Christie’s.