Many of us share a timeless attraction to pearls— it’s a deep admiration that extends across cultures and continents. Maybe it’s because pearls are associated with water, a fundamental element of life. Or maybe it’s because this June birthstone comes from a living thing. Natural pearls are highly sought after due to their rarity. For those who prefer cultured pearls, you’re in luck: cultured freshwater and saltwater pearls are widely available, and in so many colors and shapes that there are pearls to suit a variety of tastes.
To celebrate June babies, let’s take a look at a famous June birthstone, a very rare and historically significant natural pearl known as La Peregrina.
La Peregrina: What’s in a Name?
The English translation of the Spanish word ‘peregrina’ is ‘pilgrim’ or ‘wanderer,’ the perfect name for a gem that’s traveled the globe and passed through many illustrious hands since its discovery more than 500 years ago. Pearl connoisseurs are surely familiar with this renowned pear-shaped saltwater natural pearl weighing approximately 50.56 carats.
A Rich and Tumultuous History
La Peregrina, or the Philip II pearl, was at one time or another owned by Spanish, English, French, and Hollywood royalty. The discovery of this extremely large natural pearl was quite significant, as natural pearls of any size are very rare. It is believed to have come from South America but the specific location and year of discovery is not certain. One story has it that in 1560 it was in the possession of a slave from the Gulf of Panama who won his freedom by handing the pearl over to Vasco Nunez de Balboa. Another story claims that it came from a Venezuelan fishery in 1574.
The pearl was transported to Spain and given to King Philip II (1527-1598). He sent the famed pearl as a token of love to his wife, Queen Mary I of England—known as Mary Tudor or ‘Bloody Mary’ – and was returned to Spain’s crown jewels upon her death. The pearl changed hands through the centuries: owned by French Emperor Napoleon III during the early 19th century, then making its way back to England in 1873 when James Hamilton, Duke of Abercorn, purchased it. It stayed with this family until it went to auction in 1969.
What happened next on this pearl’s long and storied journey? La Peregrina became a Hollywood legend when Richard Burton purchased the pearl for $37,000 at Parke-Bernet Galleries in New York, January 1969, as a gift for Elizabeth Taylor. Because the pearl was fashioned as a pendant – the bail consists of diamonds mounted in platinum -Taylor commissioned Cartier to design a complete piece of jewelry to complement it. The resulting two-strand necklace features an additional 57 saltwater natural pearls, four cultured pearls, rubies and diamonds. La Peregrina was an important piece for Taylor, who owned the pearl for the rest of her life.
After Elizabeth Taylor’s death, her entire jewelry collection toured the globe in a legendary exhibit before being sold by Christie’s New York in December 2011. An anonymous buyer eventually purchased La Peregrina for $11.8 million, a bid that far surpassed estimates.
Pearl, the June birthstone, is found in many prominent jewelry pieces, but La Peregrina is noteworthy for the famous dignitaries who have owned it over the years. What does the future hold for this approximately 50.56-carat pearl fit for royalty? Only time will tell the fate that follows La Peregrina’s wandering spirit.