The La Peregrina Pearl was a statement made by Spanish Royalty. So how did it get into the hands of Hollywood Royalty?

The La Peregrina Pearl is one of the largest pear-shaped pearls in the world. Its name means “the Pilgrim-woman” or a female “wanderer” and that is definitely appropriate given its history. It has managed to go from several Spanish monarchs all the way into Elizabeth Taylor’s legendary jewellery collection. It is a pear-shaped pearl whose original weight was 55.95 carats making it the largest pearl ever found at the time of its discovery in c. 1579. The pearl remains one of the largest perfectly symmetrical pear-shaped pearls in the world. Say that five times fast.

The pearl was found in 1579 by an African slave in the Pearl islands around Panama. It was brought back to Spain and sold to King Phillip II of Spain. Originally intended as a gift to his daughter to celebrate her marriage, Phillip instead kept it for himself. Like a Spanish Gollum in the Lord of the Rings. He thought it so precious that he made it a part of the Spanish Crown Jewel’s where the pearl appeared in its inventory for 200 years.

i. La Peregrina with added modifications | Credit: Winsterton

Many Spanish Queens favoured the pearl. Margaret of Austria wore the pearl in 1605 to celebrate the peace between England and Spain. It was also prized by Elisabeth of France.

iii. Margaret of Austria, Queen of Spain by Juan Pantoja de la Cruz (c. 1606)
ii. Elisabeth of France, Queen of Spain by Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1625)
ii. Elisabeth of France, Queen of Spain by Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1625)

Napoleon Bonaparte’s elder brother, Joseph, was installed as king of Spain in 1808. After five years of rule, Joseph was forced to leave Spain after France’s defeat at the Battle of Vitoria. When he left, he took some of the crown jewels with him, including La Peregrina. It was Joseph who gave it the name “La Peregrina.” Little did he know what kind of journey the pearl would undergo.

Joseph left La Peregrina to his nephew, future Emperor of France, Napoleon III. When Napoleon was exiled to England, he sold the pearl to James Hamilton, Marquess and future Duke of Abercorn. Hamilton had bought it for his wife and managed to give it up, unlike King Phillip.

Several recorded shenanigans ensued thereafter with the pearl. As it was so heavy, it kept falling out of the necklace that held it. One time it got lost in the sofa at Windsor Castle and another time it was lost at a ball in Buckingham Palace. Each time it was recovered, and the Hamilton family owned the pearl until 1969 when they sold it at auction at Sotheby’s in London.

This is where actor Richard Burton found and purchased the pearl for $37,000. He gave it to his wife, actress Elizabeth Taylor, for Valentine’s Day.

Taylor also had a mishap with the pearl as it too fell from the necklace. She couldn’t find it anywhere until she realised that the dog was chewing on what looked like a bone. It turned out to be the pearl, that was, thankfully, undamaged. After this Taylor had Cartier re-design the necklace adorning it with a further assortment pearls, diamonds and rubies. This is the current state of La Peregrina.

Upon Taylor’s death, La Peregrina was sold in an auction at Christie’s in New York. Its value was estimated at $3 million but the bidding just kept going until it reached $11 million once various fees were factored in. The pearl now has a private owner.

La Peregrina is a beautiful piece of jewellery with a rich history that only increases its value. It is preferable without the Cartier necklace, but it does create a bolder statement if that is what you are looking for. Given that the pearl itself is one of the largest in the world, subtlety is not its main appeal so either the Cartier adds to that appeal or becomes gaudy. It is in the eye of the beholder which they prefer. A brilliant piece of jewellery with an interesting history that surely has more adventures left in the future.