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La Peregrina, the famous pearl discovered on an island near Panama and worn first by Mary I of England

Stefan Andrews
Getty Images
Getty Images

Several of the most famous pieces of jewelry in the world have seen some turbulent changes of ownership throughout the centuries. Take the Hope Diamond, one of the most famous diamonds ever known. It is believed to have been collected–or stolen–from India, after which it ended up as a possession of the French royal household during the reign of Louis XIV.

It remained in this royal house until it was stolen again, and eventually purchased by the wealthy businessman Thomas Hope in the 19th century, which is how it picked its name. In the early 20th century, it came into the hands of the famed New York socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean, until it finally ended up safely stored at the Smithsonian.

No different is La Peregrina, perhaps the world’s most famous of all pearls, which has traveled around the world, changing owners ever since it was found in the mid-16th century. The name–La Peregrina–meaning both “pilgrim” and “wanderer” in Spanish, brings a notion of premonition in its arduous history, shuffling among different countries and royal households.

La Peregrina lore tells that it was discovered on a tiny island off the coast of Panama. As one of the stories goes, it was found by a slave who was brought there from Africa, for which he was granted freedom. However, others tales suggest that the pearl was discovered around 1513, when slaves had still not arrived in the region.

Antonis Mor (after), Mary I of England wearing a pendant with La Peregrina 1554
Antonis Mor (after), Mary I of England wearing a pendant with La Peregrina 1554

Whichever the case was, the precious find was received by Don Pedro de Temez, an official who administrated the Spanish colony of Panama in that period. La Peregrina was later introduced to the Spanish royal household, where it became part of the Spanish Crown Jewels for a while.

In fact, through much of its history, the pearl was a possession of different royal households. Its ownership passed between the Spanish and the English royal houses and it briefly was held by the French. It all started when King Philip II of Spain, who reigned through much of the second half of the 16th century, sent the precious pearl as a present to his second wife, Mary I of England, notoriously remembered as Bloody Mary because of the religious burnings during her reign.

In most of her portraits, Mary I can indeed be spotted wearing the famous piece of jewel. On the paintings, the 58.5 carat pearl can be noticed hanging from one of two diamonds on the necklace that adorns the figure of the queen.

After the queen’s death, in accordance with her will, the pearl was brought back to Spain, where it remained for more than 250 years. There, it was worn by other prominent royals, including Margaret of Austria, queen consort to King Philip III. Historical accounts tell us that she wore La Peregrina at an event that celebrated the signing of the Treaty of London in 1604, a peace treaty between England and Spain.

In the early 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother Joseph inherited the throne of Spain. Joseph was very unpopular with the Spanish and was eventually forced to abdicate. The king lost his crown, but he made sure to take with him at least several pieces of jewelry, which is how La Peregrina ended up in France. The jewel was then inherited by his nephew, Napoleon III of France, who sold it to Lord James Hamilton, Duke of Abercorn, and that is how the pearl returned to England.

The tiny treasure remained in the ownership of the Hamilton family until 1969, when it was offered for sale at Sotheby’s auction house in London.

Richard Burton, the fifth of Elizabeth Taylor’s eight husbands, purchased La Peregrina from the auction. He reportedly bought the pearl for a sum of $37,000 and gave it as a present to Taylor for Valentine’s Day.

The actress Elizabeth Taylor received the Pearl “Peregrina” from her husband Richard Burton in 1969 Author: Roland Godefroy CC BY 3.0
The actress Elizabeth Taylor received the Pearl “Peregrina” from her husband Richard Burton in 1969 Author: Roland Godefroy CC BY 3.0

In the hands of the actress, the setting of the necklace simply had to undergo a slight redesign, and the entire piece was enriched with more pearls, as well as other gems, such as diamonds and rubies. Following Taylor’s death, La Peregrina was offered at another auction in December 2011.

The pre-sale estimates valued the item at not more than $3 million. La Peregrina was sold in less than five minutes, and this time it wrote history after fetching a record-breaking price of $11.8 million. Its buyer reportedly came from Asia and has remained anonymous.

Here is another story from us: Elizabeth Taylor’s dark outlined eyes were due to a rare mutation giving her “double eyelashes”

There are also other sources who claim that the entire fuss about La Peregrina is for the wrong pearl. That the real gem, once worn by Mary I of England, is actually the Pearl of Kuwait, the piece being slightly bigger than that owned by Taylor. However, these claims have so far remained unsupported.

Stefan Andrews

Stefan is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to The Vintage News. He is a graduate in Literature. He also runs a blog – This City Knows.