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La Peregrina is one of the most famous pearls in the world. Its history spans almost 500 years, and it has passed from the African slave who found it at Pearl Islands in the Gulf of Panama, to European kings and queens. Most recently, the pearl belonged to Elizabeth Taylor.
The original weight of this pear-shaped pearl was 223.8 grains, (55.95 carats, 11.2 g). At the time of its discovery, it was the largest pearl ever found. In 1913 the pearl had to be drilled and cleaned to secure it firmly to its setting. After drilling and cleaning, the pearl's weight decreased to 203.84 grains. La Peregrina remains one of the largest perfectly symmetrical pear-shaped pearls in the world.
The pearl was found by an African slave on the coast of the isle of Santa Margarita in the Gulf of Panama in the mid-16th century. Some stories claim that the pearl was found in 1513, but at that time there were no African slaves on the islands. The pearl was given to Don Pedro de Temez, the administrator of the Spanish colony in Panama. The slave who found it was rewarded with freedom.
The pearl was carried to Spain and given by Temez to Philip II of Spain. It was in anticipation of his marriage to Mary I of England that Philip II presented La Peregrina to Mary Tudor. Queen Mary wore the pearl as a pendant to a brooch, as seen in the famous portrait of Queen Mary by Hans Eworth, which is exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery in London, as well as other portraits drawn by various artists between 1553 and 1558.
After her death in 1558, the pearl was returned to the Crown of Spain, where it remained as part of the crown jewelry for the next 250 years. It became one of the favorite ornaments for the Spanish queen consorts of that time. Margaret of Austria, Queen of Spain, wife of Philip III of Spain, wore the pearl for the celebration of the peace treaty between Spain and England in 1605. Portraits made by Diego Velázquez are evidence that the pearl was prized by both wives of Philip IV of Spain. The equestrian portrait of Queen Elisabeth of France also shows the queen wearing the pearl. Mariana of Austria, the second wife of Philip IV, was painted with the pearl as well.
In 1808 the elder brother of Napoleon, Joseph Bonaparte, became the king of Spain. His rule continued for five years, and when he was forced to leave the kingdom, after the defeat of the French forces at the Battle of Vitoria, he took some of the crown jewels with him, including La Peregrina. At that time, the pearl got its name "La Peregrina - the Wanderer." In his will, Joseph Bonaparte left the pearl to his nephew Louis-Napoléon, later Emperor Napoleon III. During his exile in England, the Emperor sold it to James Hamilton, Marquess and later Duke of Abercorn. The Marquess bought the pearl for his wife, Louisa. The pearl was very heavy and it fell out of its necklace's setting on at least two occasions. The first time, the pearl got lost in a sofa in Windsor Castle; the second time, during a ball at Buckingham Palace. On both occasions, the pearl was recovered. The Hamilton family owned the pearl until 1969 when they sold it at auction at Sotheby's in London.
Richard Burton purchased the pearl at the Sotheby's auction for $37,000. He gave it to his wife Elizabeth Taylor as a Valentine's Day gift during their first marriage. On one occasion, the pearl went missing in the Burtons' suite at Caesar's Palace, Paradise, Nevada. In her book Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair with Jewelry, Taylor writes:
At one point I reached down to touch La Peregrina and it wasn't there! 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. 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.
After few minutes of mental anguish, Taylor looked at their puppies. One of them was apparently chewing on a bone, but nobody gave bones to the puppies. Taylor continues:
I just casually opened the puppy's mouth and inside his mouth was the most perfect pearl in the world. It was—thank God—not scratched.
Burton sought a portrait of Queen Mary wearing the pearl. Upon the purchase of such a painting, the Burtons discovered that the British National Portrait Gallery did not have an original painting of Mary, so they donated the painting to the Gallery.
Taylor commissioned Cartier to re-design the necklace, setting La Peregrina with pearls, diamonds, and rubies. In 2005 Taylor lent it to Smithsonian Institution for their "The Allure of Pearls" exhibition.
In December 2011 the pearl sold for a record price of more than $11 million (£7.1m). La Peregrina was sold as part of Elizabeth Taylor's collection, which was being auctioned at Christie's in New York. It was sold mounted on the diamond Cartier necklace. Its value had been estimated at $3 million, but the bidding vastly exceeded the estimate and reached $10.5 million - increasing to more than $11 million once the various fees were factored in.
In the press a second pearl has been claimed to be the Mary Tudor pearl. As of 2013[update], it is owned by the jewelers select Jewellers Symbolic & Chase and will be exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum in autumn 2013. This pearl is somewhat larger than The Peregrina.