Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Wandering Pearl

Contrary to popular belief, pearls do not normally start with a grain of sand inside an oyster.  Far more often it is a parasite that enters the shell, which the oyster slowly encases in a substance called nacre.  After three years, enough layers have accumulated to produce a small pearl.

If you open about a ton of saltwater oysters, you might find a single fully formed pearl.  Open about 10,000 of them and you might find one of significant value.  Roughly once a century, someone finds a truly significant pearl—a pearl that has remained in the oyster more than twenty years, and is uniquely beautiful in shape, color, and texture.  (As you can see at left, my granddaughter helped with an illustration this week.)

In 1554, off the coast of Panama, an African slave found just such a pearl: a large pear-shaped, white pearl, that was beautifully formed, with no visible imperfections.  As was the custom, when the slave turned the pearl over to his master, he was given his freedom as a reward.

When the pearl reached the administrator, Don Pedro de Temez, he personally took it back to Spain and presented it to the Prince of Asturias, the future King Philip II of Spain, and the son of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor.  The Pearl was mounted as a pendant and presented to Mary I of England—better know as Bloody Mary—as an engagement present. 

It is amazing how many people have had their portraits painted wearing that chunk of calcium carbonate.  Besides Bloody Mary (right), we have a whole art gallery of royal portraits featuring this large pearl.  Quite a few Kings of Spain favored it, and almost all of the queens of Spain (Philip IV gave it to all three of his wives) were painted at one time or another wearing what was at the time, the largest pearl in the world.  In portraits, the pearl has been painted by Rubens, Eworth, da Trezzo, and Velasquez.

After Bloody Mary died, the pearl was returned to Spain where it became part of the Spanish Royal Jewels for 250 years.  Normally worn as a pendant, the pearl shows up in a few portraits attached to hats or worn on a necklace.  It is listed on several royal inventories, and may be one of the most well-documented pieces of royal jewelry in history.

If it weren't for Napoleon, the Pearl would probably still be in Spain.  After the monumentally disastrous reign of Charles IV (he was aided and abetted by an idiot of a Prime Minister, Godoy), the Spanish Empire imploded.  The country ran up huge debts, slowly lost control of almost all of its colonies, and finally all but begged for the French Emperor to invade.  Finally, in desperation, Charles IV abdicated in favor of his son, Ferdinand, then promptly "un-abdicated" and claimed the throne again, leaving almost everyone in Spain hating somebody.

In 1805, Napoleon took advantage of the power vacuum, invaded and placed his brother, Joseph, on the throne of Spain.  For five years, Joseph tried to rule Spain, aided by both the Catholic Church and the noblemen of Spain.  The people of Spain, however, rose up and fought for the return of King Ferdinand. 

No one wanted King Charles IV back.

Aided by the arrival of the British Army, the people of Spain were eventually able to run off the French, but as Joseph Bonaparte fled back to safety, he took a large portion of the Spanish jewels with him.  (If you read the blog last week, you know that a lot of Spanish treasures went missing at the same time.)

Joseph Bonaparte fled to the United States, living comfortably in New York, where he sold most of the crown jewels he had stolen from Spain.  The pearl, now known as La Peregrina (The Wanderer), Bonaparte kept with him, until he finally returned to Europe.  At Joseph's death, his nephew Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte inherited the pearl.

The nephew tried to emulate his uncle by seizing control of France—twice—but each time ended up in jail.  After his second coup attempt, he managed to escape, making his way to England, where he sold the pearl to James Hamilton, the Duke of Abercorn.  Eventually, he returned to France and was elected President of the Second Republic.  When he was constitutionally barred from seeking a second term, he staged a successful third coup and ruled as Napoleon III.

Hamilton gave the pearl to his wife, who wore it as a pendant (much as the queens of Spain had before her).  Unfortunately, by now the gold setting for the pearl was rather loose and Duchess lost the pearl at least twice at parties.  The first time, the pearl was found between the cushions of a sofa at Windsor Castle; the second time it went missing was at Buckingham Palace, where it was found in the train of another woman’s gown. 

La Peregrina stayed in the Hamilton family until 1969, when it was sold at Sotheby’s for $37,000 to Richard Burton as a gift for his wife, Elizabeth Taylor.  Burton had a Sotheby’s agent deliver the pearl to their suite at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas (while the couple was in town filming The Only Game in Town).

Elizabeth loved the pearl for its beauty, but Burton was also intrigued by the history of the jewel.  Unfortunately, the pearl was still loosely attached, though it now hung on a platinum chain, so, within minutes, the pearl went missing again.  Crawling on their hands and knees, the two famous actors and the Sotheby’s agent began searching through the thick, pink shag carpet for the precious jewel.  Only when the actress' puppy began choking on something did they recover the pearl.  Incredibly, it was unharmed.

Elizabeth Taylor had Cartier re-drill the pearl to accommodate a larger, more secure bale, and when the pearl was remounted, it lost a little of its weight, dropping from 56 to a mere 51 carats.  When Cartier returned the pearl, it was hung on a pearl, ruby, and diamond necklace.  According to the designer, Alfred Durante, the necklace was designed for the pearl to hang at a strategic position.  Or as Durante said, “…a very nice place.”

After Elizabeth Taylor died in 2011, Christie’s auctioned off the actress' fabled collection of jewelry for $116 million.  La Peregrina sold for slightly more than $11 million.  While the current owner has elected to remain anonymous, the most famous pearl in the world probably can’t remain hidden for long….there has to be a portrait somewhere of the new owner wearing it.

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1 comment:

  1. Interesting that they were able to keep track of that big thing all these years. Of course given where it hung on a succession of women,it seems history has kept a close eye on it.

    (Insert snort)