La Peregrina pearl
On Valentine’s Day in 1969 Richard Burton presented to Elizabeth Taylor La Peregrina – The Wanderer – a pear-shaped natural pearl, almost 56 carats in weight. It was seven years since they had fallen madly in love on the set of Anthony and Cleopatra and clearly Burton wanted to mark the occasion with a gift of historic proportions.
As big as a quail’s egg and almost perfectly symmetrical, La Peregrina was found in the mid-16th century off the coast of Panama and brought to Madrid where it was presented to Philip II. For more than 200 years, the pink-hued pearl belonged to a succession of Spanish kings and queens – featuring in many royal portraits including some painted by Velasquez and Goya – until the early 1800s when Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte ruled Spain.
Bonaparte was defeated in 1813 by the Duke of Wellington and returned to France, taking with him some of the Spanish crown jewels, including the prized pearl which he left to his nephew, Louis Napoleon, who would later, as Napoleon III, become Emperor of France. Louis Napoleon sold it in about 1848 – perhaps to help fund the coup that led him to power in that same year – to the Duke and Duchess of Abercorn. The pearl stayed in the Duke’s family until 1969, when it was put up for auction at Sotheby’s Parke Bernet in New York, and sold to Richard Burton for $37,000.
Ward Landrigan, then head of Sotheby’s jewelry division, delivered the pearl in person to the Burtons’ glamorous penthouse suite at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Liz went to try it on. Famously, twenty minutes later, she ran in crying: “Ward, I’ve lost the pearl.” He searched for it in the pink shag pile carpet and noticed one of Liz’s two Lhasa Apso dogs had something in its mouth. Liz grabbed the dog and got the dog to spit out the pearl, which would become one of the actress’ favorite jewels.
Liz worked closely with Alfred Durante of Cartier to re-design for La Peregrina a two-strand necklace with rubies, diamonds, natural and cultured pearls, which she wore in several films including A Little Night Music and Anne of The Thousand Days. After her death in 2011, Christie’s sold the necklace in auction to an anonymous buyer for $11,842,500. “I cannot see life without Elizabeth,” Burton revealed in an interview, one year before he gave her the pearl. “She is my everything — my breath, my blood, my mind, and my imagination.” But his gift lasted a lot longer than their tempestuous marriage, divorcing for a second time in 1976. Pearls, created in the delicate flesh of an oyster, are – like romantic love – both exquisitely beautiful and a function of pain. But on Valentine’s Day, we celebrate love for the joy that it brings.