La Peregrina: the most famous pearl in the world

Without doubt, the most famous pearl in the history of art is the one worn in Vermeer’s Daughter with a Pearl Earring (circa 1665), which has roughly the same dimensions as La Peregrina. However, it was impossible that poor Vermeer could have accessed a pearl even from a distance as large as this one. His had to be either entirely imaginary or a false varnished glass pearl. Vermeer included pearls in a large amount of his paintings, usually as a token of wealth and status, but there was sometimes a religious subtext, such as his Allegory of the Catholic Faith (circa 1670) where pearls are a reference to holy purity. – a subject dear to the heart of the artist, Catholic in a country with a Protestant majority.

The real La Peregrina remained in the possession of the Spanish royal family until the early 1800s. In 1808, Napoleon invaded the country and put his brother Joseph Bonaparte on the throne. When the French were ousted from Spain in 1813, Joseph brought the pearl with him to France and gave it to his sister-in-law Hortense de Beauharnais. It was then inherited by his son Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, future Napoleon III, president and emperor of France in the mid-1800s.

When Napoleon III needed to revive his finances, he sold it to the Englishman James Hamilton, Duke of Abercorn. Hamilton’s wife Louisa is said to have suffered the same panic as Elizabeth Taylor, leading La Peregrina astray on several occasions during social functions, including once between the cushions of a Buckingham Palace sofa. It remained in the possession of the Dukes of Abercorn until it was purchased for $ 37,000 at auction by Richard Burton in 1969.

After recovering it from the mouths of her Pekingese, it has become one of Elizabeth Taylor’s most precious possessions. La Peregrina was to be immortalized once again in visual culture by appearing around Taylor’s neck in various iconic photographs and films, including Anne of the Thousand Days (1969). In December 2011, following Taylor’s death, it was auctioned off for $ 11.8million (£ 8.4million) to an anonymous buyer.

On average, only one in 10,000 oysters will produce a pearl of moderate value. The chances of producing one to the scale and perfection of La Peregrina are incalculable. Its name means “The Wanderer” and the odyssey of this natural wonder, from the oyster beds of the Gulf of Panama to the hands of some of the most prestigious people in the history of the world, recalls what pearls have meant for different people over time. Pearls are not just an ornament; they also tell us about imperialism, power, wealth, spiritual purity and our understanding of ultimate beauty.

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