Historical Revivals: La Peregrina
Posted on June 29 2021
It is only fitting that our Historical Revival feature for the month of June involves a pearl (one of two June birthstones), and not just any pearl -- the world's most famous pearl -- La Peregrina. Translated from Spanish, the name means "the [female] wanderer or pilgrim," due to its many owners (and consequent Revivals) throughout the ages.
To understand the true power and mystique of La Peregrina, we must go back many centuries, to a time when pearls were far more revered and far more rare than they are in today's day and age.
Genuine pearls were not widely available until the discovery and consequent commercialization of the pearl cultivation industry. Until the 20th century, the only way to acquire pearls was naturally. A small percentage of oysters produce pearls in the first place, and an even smaller percentage of those oyster-producing pearls produce pearls suitable for consumption. Scientists estimate that only 1 in 10,000 oysters will produce of pearl of worth. Many oysters had to be harvested and opened just to find a few pearls, let alone enough to make a strand of pearls for a necklace.
When La Peregrina was discovered in the late 16th century, it was the largest pearl every found, weighing in at an astounding 223.8 grains (55.95 carats or 11.2 g). First documented by Spanish historian Garcilaso de la Vega, the pearl was described as an exceptionally large pear-shaped pearl that was discovered in the Pearl Islands of Panama in 1579 and brought back to Spain where it was sold to King Philip II of Spain who gave it to his new bride, Mary "Bloody" Tudor. After her death, King Philip took the pearl back and bestowed it the honor of becoming a Spanish Crown Jewel for the next two centuries. Four different Spanish queens had their portraits painted with their own distinct Revival styles of the precious pearl heirloom (below from left to right: Queen Mary Tudor I of England c. 1554, Queen Margaret of Austria c. 1606, Elisabeth of France c. 1625).
The pearl was removed from the Crown Collection in 1813 by Joseph Bonaparte when he was removed from the throne and forced to leave the country. He willed it to his nephew, the future Napoleon III of France, who later sold it to an English Duke, who had it set on a necklace for his wife, the Duchess Louisa Hamilton. The pearl was so large if often fell out of its setting and was lost on two separate occasions, so in 1913 the massive pearl had to be drilled and cleaned for a new setting, decreasing its weight to 203.84 grains. It remained in the Hamilton family until 1969 when it was sold at a Sotheby’s auction in London, to none other than Richard Burton.
Burton gave La Peregrina to his jewelry-loving wife, Elizabeth Taylor, for Valentine’s Day. When Taylor received the pearl from Burton, it hung from a long strand of spaced out natural pearls (above, right). Taylor decided to have the pearl necklace redesigned in a more decadent style, and commissioned a revival of the heirloom necklace by Cartier, who redesigned the necklace with a decadent setting of pearls, diamonds, and rubies.
La Peregrina's Redesign by Cartier
It was later displayed at the Smithsonian, and then auctioned at Christie’s in New York as part of Elizabeth Taylor’s jewelry collection, where it was sold to a private collector for a record price of more than $11 million. La Peregrina remains, to this day, one fo the largest natural and perfectly symmetrical pear-shaped pearls in the world.