The Pearl: La Peregrina

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La Peregrina (“the Wanderer”) is generally believed to have been discovered off the coast of Panama during the early 16th century. Thought to be the largest pearl in the world, it was brought to Madrid by the explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who presented it to Ferdinand V. It was later past on to his grandson, Philip II of Spain, a grandson of Philip the Handsome and Joanna the Mad of Castile, founders of the Spanish Hapsburg dynasty.

In 1554 Philip II sent the pearl as an engagement present to the fiancé he had yet to meet, Mary I of England, the eldest daughter of King Henry VIII by his first wife Catherine of Aragon. When they finally came face to face, Philip is said to have cursed the artist who exaggerated Mary’s charms.

The importance accorded to La Peregrina, and its spectacular beauty, was recorded in numerous portraits of Mary, including a painting by the Flemish master Hans Eworth that hangs in London’s National Portrait Gallery. In that 1553 portrait the pearl hangs in the center, suspended from a large encrusted diamond, an emerald-and-gold cross and an emerald-studded pearl necklace. Mere mortals could only dream of possessing jewels of such magnificence, which were intended to convey the wealth and power of their owner.

Mary, a pious Catholic, was reviled as Bloody Mary for the 300 Protestant burnings, 100 deaths in custody and 800 exiles carried out during her five-year reign. Her marriage to the foreign, Catholic prince was so unpopular that the ceremony had to be conducted at Winchester Cathedral, miles away from angry mobs in London. (A portrait of Queen Mary wearing La Peregrina still hangs at Winchester.) Upon her death in 1558 the pearl was returned to the Spanish treasury, to be worn by a succession of kings and queens, for nearly three hundred years.

When Philip II died of cancer in 1598 La Peregrina was passed to his son Philip III, whose first wife, Margarita of Austria, wore the pearl on state occasions, including the celebrations in Madrid of a peace treaty between Spain and England, and at tournaments celebrating the baptism of the future Philip IV.

Margarita is also depicted wearing La Peregrina in a magnificent equestrian portrait by Velazquez, in which the pearl is fastened to her bodice. In that picture, now at the Prado Museum, the pearl hangs from a large squared table diamond known as the Estanque, a pairing created for the royal family and known as the “joyel de los Austrias” or the “joyel rio.” In another equestrian portrait by Velazquez at the Prado, Queen Isabel, Philip IV’s second wife, wears it suspended from a long necklace.

The royal game of pass-the-pearl continued after Isabel’s death, when Philip IV married his 14-year-old niece, Mariana of Austria. Pressed into royal service once again, Velazquez painted the king’s child bride wearing La Peregrina as part of her elaborate headdress.

Proving that pearls are nothing if not adaptable, Philip IV wore La Peregrina on the brim of his hat at the wedding of his Maria Theresa to Louis XIV of France, the Sun King, on June 9, 1660. The pearl’s magnificence impressed even the acerbic duke of Saint-Simon, whose famous Memoirs chronicled the intrigues of court life under Louis XIV. “I saw and handled at my ease the famous Peregrina that the King of Spain had that evening on the fold of his hat, hanging from a beautiful clasp of diamonds,” Saint-Simon wrote. “It is perfectly shaped and bell-mouthed.”

Neither the persnickety Saint-Simon – not the Sun King himself – had much time for Maria Theresa, who had the mentality of a child and loved playing with small dogs and dwarves. French courtiers also noted unkindly she had short legs and black teeth from eating too much chocolate and garlic.

At the wedding, La Peregrina was separated from another famous pearl, La Pelegrina (frequently confused because of their similar spellings). Only 100 grains lighter than La Peregrina, La Pelegrina had also been owned by Philip II, whose grandson, Philip IV, presented it to his daughter upon her marriage. Two centuries later it was bought by the immensely wealthy Russian Princess Tatiana Yusopov, who left it to her grandson Prince Felix Yusopov, the murderer of Rasputin. La Pelegrina as sold at Christie’s in Geneva in 1987 for the enormous sum of $463,800.

Pass-the-pearl continued when Philip IV died in 1665, leaving La Peregrina to his only surviving son, Charles II of Spain, who was three years old. Physically disabled, epileptic and mentally retarded, Charles was disfigured with a grotesquely protruding jaw, a severe case of the family curse, a genetic condition known as the Habsburg jaw. The king had a tongue that was so big that he could barely speak, and he often drooled, even as an adult.

He was also barely able to walk. But he had marvelous jewelry. La Peregrina dangled from his hat during the Corpus Christi processions in 1679, when Charles II and his attendants dressed in black and fastened plumes, diamonds and other jewels to their magnificent headwear.

The same year, the 18-year-old Charles II married the beautiful Marie Louise of Orleans, a niece of Louis XIV. Alas, the king proved to be impotent and incapable of siring an heir. His pretty bride became profoundly depressed and morbidly obese and died at 27. His second marriage to Maria Anna of Pfalz-Neuburg, a sister-in-law of his uncle Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor, was equally unfruitful.

During his lifetime Charles was known as El Hechizado (“The Bewitched”) from the common belief that his physical and mental disabilities were the result of “sorcery” rather the more probable cause: centuries of inbreeding within the Habsburg dynasty.

In addition to the unfortunate coincidence that his mother was also his first cousin, Charles II was descended 14 times from his great-great-great grandmother, Joanna I, (“Joanna the Mad”), and there were signs that he was tainted by the family’s predisposition towards insanity. During one especially melancholy episode, the king insisted that the bodies of his family be exhumed so he could view their corpses. He is said to have wept upon seeing the decaying body of his first wife, Marie Louise.

In 1691 the king added another magnificent pearl to his collection. Similar in size to La Peregrina, it became known as the Charles II pearl. For forty years the two were worn together as earrings by successive queens of Spain, until the Charles II pearl was apparently destroyed by a fire at the old Palace in Madrid in 1734.

 Charles, according to Will and Ariel Durant, the historians, “was always on the verge of death, but repeatedly baffled Christendom by continuing to live.” Considered senile when he died at 38, Charles inadvertently sparked the War of the Spanish Succession upon his demise. Despite a decade of bloodshed, Charles II’s chosen successor, Philip V, held onto his throne, becoming the first of the Spanish kings from the Bourbon dynasty.

The peregrinations of La Peregrina during the first half of the 18th century remain a mystery, but the pearl appears to have stayed in the Spanish treasury. It was worn by Maria Luisa of Parma, the last of Spain’s 18th-century queens, PAINTED FREQUENTLY BY GOYA – ANY PIX? whom contemporaries described as a coarse, vicious and morally corrupt woman who dominated her feeble husband, King Charles IV, who was also her first cousin.

Maria Luisa had numerous lovers, whose exertions delighted her more than those of the king, who preferred to spend his time assembling and dismantling clocks. The monarch entrusted the running of the state to his prime minister, Manuel de Godoy, a long-time lover of the queen who reportedly sired at least one of her children.

Charles IV tried in vain to satisfy his wife’s unquenchable thirst for pearls and diamonds. Stones of extravagant size and value were never enough for Maria Luisa, who loved to surround them with similarly extravagant jewels. Finding the exquisite purity of La Peregrina insufficient, she had it remounted in an oval ball of diamonds with an engraved band across the middle which declared in black-enameled letters: Soy La Peregrina (I am the Peregrina).

Opportunities for Maria Theresa to dazzle the court with her jewels expired in 1808 when Napoléon’s forces advanced on Spain. The queen was forced into exile in France with her husband and beloved Godoy, leaving a vacancy on the Spanish throne which Napoléon filled by appointing his alcoholic brother Joseph Bonaparte as king. Joseph failed to unite the country, and amid threats of a national uprising he fled Madrid and returned to France in 1813, carrying with him La Peregrina.

In Paris, Joseph bestowed the pearl upon Hortense de Beauharnais, the ravishingly beautiful daughter of the Empress Josephine. Napoléon had compelled the 19-year-old Hortense, his stepdaughter, to marry one of his brothers, Louis. It was a loveless match, but Hortense dutifully accompanied her husband to the Hague when the emperor appointed them as king and queen of Holland in 1806.

Beautiful, seductive and intelligent, Hortense was easily bored by her husband, who suffered from a venereal disease that was never treated. When Louis abdicated as king of Holland in 1810 and settled in Germany, Hortense returned with her sons to France.

A large pear-shaped pearl that appears to be La Peregrina hangs from Hortense’s neck in an undated 19th-century portrait by Baron Gérard which shows Hortense dressed in the Empire style, adorned with magnificent pearls. The painting now resides at the Ash Lawn Highland Museum in Charlottesville, Virginia, a gift from Hortense to her former schoolmate in France, Eliza Monroe, the daughter of James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States.

When Hortense died in 1837 she bequeathed La Peregrina to her eldest surviving son Charles Louis Napoléon, the future Napoleon III. Short of cash, he sold it to his friend James Hamilton, the 2nd marquis of Abercorn, a British Conservative nobleman who was a favorite at Queen Victoria’s court.

Hamilton, who later became the 1st Duke of Abercorn after serving as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, was also Prince Albert’s Groom of the Stole,[ix] a title first awarded during the reign of England’s Charles II to the nobleman given the honor of guarding the monarch’s chamberpot. (By the time of Queen Victoria, the Groom’s duties had become less arduous, consisting mostly of assisting Prince Albert at state functions.)

The duke had purchased La Peregrina as a gift for his wife Louisa, who was terrified of misplacing it. “To my mother it was an unceasing source of anxiety,” Lord Frederic Hamilton, one of her 14 children, wrote in his 1921 memoir, Here, There and Everywhere. The pearl had never been drilled, he noted, so it could not be fastened, and was “constantly falling from its setting.”

 “Three times she lost it; three times she found it again,” Hamilton recalled. “Once at a ball at Buckingham Palace, on putting her hand to her neck, she found that the great pearl had gone. She was much distressed, knowing how upset my father would be. On going into supper, she saw [La Peregrina] gleaming at her from the folds of the velvet train of the lady immediately in front of her. Again she lost it at Windsor Castle, and it was found in the upholstery of a sofa.”

The slippery pearl was inherited in 1885 by his son the 2nd duke, who took the precaution of having it drilled so that his wife could wear it without the constant risk of losing it. In 1913 it was polished and its exact weight recorded: 203.84 grains, equivalent to nearly half an ounce. In turn, it was inherited by the 3rd duke, and the 4th, who offered it to a London jewelry dealer who consigned it to Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York.

A week before Sotheby’s auction on January 23, 1969, the Duke of Alba held a dramatic press conference in which he claimed that the real La Peregrina was still in the hands of the Spanish royal family. Photographs were issued of a pear-shaped pearl that jewelry experts discovered was somewhat rounder, and slightly heavier, than La Peregrina. (Little is known of the origin of the second pearl, but it may be the Charles II pearl, thought to have been lost in the fire of 1734.)

Intrigued by the controversy, which appeared in newspapers around the world, Richard Burton telephoned Sotheby’s and successfully bid $37,000 for La Peregrina as a Valentine’s Day gift for his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, who was at the peak of her career and arguably the most famous woman in the world at the time.

At Burton’s request, Ward Landrigan, the head of Sotheby’s jewelry department, accepted the hilarious assignment of delivering a pearl worn by four centuries of European royals to a pair of Hollywood royals who were staying at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.

“When I got Las Vegas there was a white Rolls Royce waiting for me,” Landrigan recalls. “Elizabeth and Richard were staying the Honeymoon Suite at Caesar’s Palace, which was the size of a football field, covered with pink shag carpet. They were drinking Salty Dogs, which was Richard’s favorite cocktail at the time – a mixture of clam juice and vodka.”

Taylor was instantly smitten with La Peregrina. “I loved putting it around my neck and feeling it dangle,” she recalls in her memoir My Love Affair With Jewelry. “The pearl was so tactile, I couldn’t stop rubbing it.”

Her excitement turned to terror minutes later.

“Elizabeth came across the room yelling, ‘Ward! Ward! The pearl’s missing!’” Landrigan recalls. “I said, ‘Have you looked down your poitrine?’ She said ‘Yes!’ Six or seven of us were on our hands and knees trying to find a pearl in the shag rug.”

Landrigan crawled past a white settee and heard a disheartening noise emanating from underneath. “One of Elizabeth’s Pekinese dogs was crunching something in its mouth,” he recalls. “Elizabeth opened his mouth and out popped La Peregrina! This pearl had survived 500 years of history unblemished, and it had little teeth marks from her dog!”

Delighted with her storied pearl, Elizabeth Taylor chose to wear it in several films; the first was Anne of a Thousand Days, the 1969 movie in which Burton plays King Henry VIII. A fitting Hollywood debut for the Royal Pearl.  

Christopher Mason