June is the month to celebrate pearls—and today we’ve got the fascinating story of the 1969 sale of one of the most famous pearls of all.
On January 23, 1969, at a quarter to two in the afternoon, the auction room at the Parke-Bernet Galleries on Madison Avenue in New York was buzzing with activity. Ward Landrigan, the young head of jewelry for the Sotheby’s branch, stood by as the auctioneer prepared to open bidding on lots from a special fine jewels sale. The auction catalogue headline advertised pieces from the collection of the 10th Duke of Manchester (selling off, as usual, more items from the family holdings) but it was another jewel that was pictured on the catalogue’s cover—an item that had caused more than a little controversy in the days before the sale.
The jewel in question was La Peregrina: a precious, pear-shaped pearl drop, weighing in at an impressive 203.84 grains, that had passed through numerous important jewelry collections over the centuries. Originally discovered by an enslaved man in Panama in the sixteenth century, the pearl was gifted to King Felipe II of Spain, and it remained in royal hands in Madrid for the next two centuries.
But by January 1969, the pearl was being offered for sale by an American collector, who had purchased it recently from the Duke of Abercorn. The Duke’s family had had the pearl in their collection for generations, and it was said that they’d acquired it from the Bonapartes—who had allegedly filched it from the Spanish royal vaults in 1813 at the end of Joseph Bonaparte’s brief tenure as King of Spain. The pearl’s nickname, peregrina, means “the wanderer.” It’s an accurate description of the pearl’s meandering journey from jewelry box to jewelry box.
But was the wandering Abercorn pearl really La Peregrina, or an imposter? As the curators at Parke-Bernet had prepared for the auction in the early days of 1969, members of the Spanish royal family, currently exiled in Switzerland, began suggesting that the pearl they were going to sell wasn’t La Peregrina at all. A family spokesperson maintained that La Peregrina was in the collection of the elderly Queen Victoria Eugenie, widow of King Alfonso XIII, in Lausanne. The pear-shaped pearl in her safe deposit box had been given to her by her late husband, and she strongly believed that it was the real La Peregrina. And she wasn’t interested in selling it.
Reporters from the Telegraph wrote that a “heated yet gentlemanly argument” over the provenance of the two pearls ensued. Jewelry experts and executives from throughout the Sotheby’s organization held an emergency meeting to discuss the possibility that their pearl was not what they believed it was. But, in the end, they decided that their pearl was indeed the genuine La Peregrina.
The perfectly-named Peregrine Pollen, president of Parke-Bernet, publicly expressed total confidence in the provenance. “We have confirmed the authenticity of this jewel to our complete satisfaction,” Pollen told the Telegraph. “Lord Twining’s A History of the Crown Jewels of Europe, the definitive work on the subject, categorically accepts this pearl, formerly the property of the Duke of Abercorn, from whom it was bought by the present American owner, as La Peregrina.” In Switzerland, Queen Victoria Eugenie died a few months later, still firmly believing that her pearl was the true Peregrina. (It almost certainly isn’t. Ena’s pearl is part of the joyas de pasar collection, now used by Queen Letizia of Spain, and scholars usually call it “La Peregrina II.”)
And so the sale proceeded as planned. Ward Landrigan told Telegraph reporter Ian Bell that he had “no qualms” about the stated provenance of the pearl. Bidding on the jewel moved quickly. Adding to the intrigue, the press reported that a member of the Spanish royal family decided to make an offer for the pearl. In reality, the bidder wasn’t a Spanish royal at all: he was Leon Shafferman, a Swiss-born eccentric who claimed that he was really “Prince Alfonso de Bourbon Asturias,” the illegitimate grandson of Queen Ena via her eldest son, the late Prince of Asturias. He explained that he wanted to buy the pearl as a gift for his royal “grandmother,” but he was quickly outbid.
An anonymous buyer, communicating by telephone, splashed out $37,000 for the pearl. The strict secrecy surrounding the identity of the pearl’s new owner only added to the air of mystery surrounding the piece. Martin Stanfield, a Parke-Bernet spokesman, told the papers, “We are not even allowed to say what city he was calling from or give his nationality. It’s a complete mystery. It was an ordered bid. It was placed before the sale.” He explained, rather theatrically, “La Peregrina is lost once more. Maybe she will turn up in history.”
It didn’t take long before the pearl was back in the spotlight. The purchaser was someone very famous indeed, who had concealed his identity because he wanted to surprise his wife with the pearl as a gift. In February 1969—to celebrate either Valentine’s Day or her birthday, depending on whom you ask—Richard Burton presented the pearl to Elizabeth Taylor. Ward Landrigan had had the pearl, then set as a pendant on a simple chain with small round pearls, flown from New York to Las Vegas, where Taylor was filming The Only Game in Town. Taylor was immediately besotted by the pearl. In her jewelry memoir, she wrote, “I loved putting [the necklace] around my neck and feeling it dangle. The pearl was so tactile, I couldn’t stop rubbing it.”
In their suite at Caesar’s Palace, Taylor had trouble containing her joy over her new jewel. The pearl “was on a delicate chain, and I was touching it like a talisman and sort of walking back and forth through our room,” she recalled. Burton loved the pearl—”anything historic was important to him,” Taylor explained—but he was in a bad mood, and she didn’t want to provoke him by expressing her happiness too exuberantly. “Just the same, there was no one to talk to and no one to show the jewel to, and I was going out of my mind! At one point I reached down to touch the pearl—and it wasn’t there!”
Taylor began to quietly and frantically search their hotel rooms. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed that one of the couple’s Pekinese puppies was chewing on a bone—and then remembered that they didn’t give their dogs bones to chew. “I just casually opened the puppy’s mouth, and inside its mouth was the most perfect pearl in the world. And it was—thank you, God—not scratched. I did finally tell Richard. But I had to wait at least a week!”
Taylor loved wearing her jewelry in public, even donning pieces from her collection in character on film sets. She wore La Peregrina with a Tudor costume for a cameo appearance in Burton’s film Anne of the Thousand Days in the summer of 1969. On October 22, 1969, Taylor wore La Peregrina—plus the diamond tiara and diamond girandole earrings from Mike Todd, and the Krupp Diamond Ring and a diamond and pearl necklace also gifted by Burton—for the royal premiere of Burton’s film Staircase. On that occasion, she met with Princess Margaret, bringing La Peregrina back within the vicinity of royalty once more.
In the early 1970s, Taylor decided that she’d like to have a new necklace setting made to showcase La Peregrina. Her inspiration came from a portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots. She brought photographs of the painting with her to Cartier, where designer Al Durante began work on the new necklace.
Taylor’s memoir, My Love Affair with Jewelry, includes some of the early sketches of the necklace as its design evolved. She wears the new Cartier necklace, set with diamonds, rubies, and pearls, with La Peregrina above to receive a film award in Italy in January 1973.
She continued to wear the Cartier necklace with La Peregrina for years afterward, even after her divorce (and remarriage, and divorce again) from Burton. She wears the necklace above in January 1992 to receive a humanitarian award in Beverly Hills.
In the final years of her life, Taylor loaned out La Peregrina and the Cartier necklace setting occasionally to special exhibitions, clearly understanding the historical importance of the piece. It was displayed in public for the first time at Christie’s in 2002, to coincide with the publication of My Love Affair with Jewelry, and again at the Smithsonian in 2005 as part of its special “The Allure of Pearls” exhibition.
Taylor passed away in March 2011, and that December, numerous pieces of her jewelry were auctioned at Christie’s in New York. La Peregrina was among them, offered with its Cartier necklace setting. Decades after Burton had quietly bought the jewel for $37,000, it sold for more than $10.5 million. Applause rang out in the auction room as La Peregrina and its necklace reached the record sum. The moment was the highlight of the spectacular sale, from which part of the proceeds went to the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. The buyer of the necklace was anonymous—so it seems that La Peregrina really has disappeared into the shadows once more.