As we mere mortals enjoy our strands of pearls and pearl stud earrings, we can admire the beauty and rich history of one of the largest, most famous pearls in the world: La Peregrina (Spanish for “pilgrim.”)
Originally found by a slave in the Gulf of Panama in the mid-sixteenth century, La Peregrina was originally 55.95 carats. The pearl was taken to Spain and given to the future King Philip II, who presented it as an engagement gift to Mary I of England. Mary wore it in a famous portrait of her rendered by Antonis Mor. Upon Mary’s death, the pearl was returned to Spain and became part of the crown jewels.
It was during this time that the pearl became a popular piece among Spanish queens, many of them having their portraits painted while adorned with La Peregrina. It later fell under the ownership of Joseph Bonaparte (elder brother to Napoleon), and was then sold to the later Duke of Abercorn, James Hamilton, who purchased it as a gift for his wife. La Peregrina remained with the Hamilton family until it was sold at a Sotheby’s auction in 1969.
The Sotheby’s purchaser? Richard Burton, who purchased it for $37,000 as a Valentine’s Day gift for his wife, Elizabeth Taylor. (What a gift!) Taylor had Cartier re-set the necklace, and in December 2011 La Peregrina was again auctioned off, this time by Christie’s in New York, where it was sold for a total value of over $11 million. La Peregrina remains one of the largest and most famous pearls in the world to this day.