Image by Gabriela Villanueva
Pearls have always represented class, social standing and elegance. Everyone from King Henry VIII to Holly Golightly wore pearls with intent, purpose and style. Throughout the history of the world and the people who have inhabited it, there have been a select few pearls with either a particularly interesting history, shape or value which has earned them their own immortal status. These are the stories of just a few of the world’s famous pearls.
In 1513 a large pear shaped pearl was found off the coast of Panama. This pearl was not only special because of its size, but because of its symmetry as well. It was given to Governor Don Pedro de Temez who took it to Spain as a gift for King Phillip II. A few years later it would be a wedding gift to his bride Queen Mary I and a part of the spanish royal jewels until the 19th century when Joseph Boneparte smuggled it out of the country after losing control of Spain. He willed it to Napoleon III, who sold it in England while living in exile. The Duke of Abercorn purchased La Peregrina as a gift for his wife, Duchess Louisa Hamilton. Due to its weight, it has a habit of freeing itself from its setting. It happened so frequently that during this period of its ownership it was lost in the sofas of Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, luckily it was recovered both times. It stayed in this family until 1969 when it was auctioned off by Sotheby’s London to Richard Burton as a Valentine’s Day gift to his wife Elizabeth Taylor. Once, in their suite in Caesars Palace, the pearl had fallen out of its setting again. Taylor frantically searched for it, only to discover her puppy had gotten a hold of it and was using it as a chew toy! She was able to retrieve it before any damage was done. Following her death in 2011 it was auctioned off to an anonymous buyer whose identity has yet to be revealed for $11.8 million.
The Imperial Hong Kong Pearl
The Imperial Hong Kong Pearl was once owned by Empress Dowager Tz’u-Hsi who ruled China for almost 50 years until 1908. She wore it as part of a good luck amulet. When she died her tomb was filled with pearls, diamonds and other precious stones. This one in particular was placed in her mouth as it was believed it would save her body from decay. In 1928 her grave was ravaged by warlord Sun Dinanying and the pearl eventually found itself sold to an American pearl dealer, Imperial Pearl Syndicate, who gave the pearl its name sometime in the 1940’s. Its history after that remains a bit of a mystery.
Empress Eugenie’s Grey pearl earrings
Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III, was born in Spain. As a way to identify herself with the French people she turned to Marie Antoinette for fashion inspiration, which meant lots of pearls. She put her own twist on things though as she favored non-white pearls. This was very unusual for the time when generally only white pearls were considered valuable and cherished. She also owned a four stranded black pearl necklace which sold for $20,000 (over $400,000 in today's value) in 1872. These earrings, however, are special not only because of their history or size, but how identical they are. The earrings are similar in shape, size and even weight, weighing 100 and 104 grains each. These pearls were sold to American railroad heir George Crocker and eventually made their way onto the ears of Dorothy Rogers, wife of an American Businessman, who wore them for Christmas 1925. She handed them down to her daughter Anne, who wore them for her New York City society debutante ball in 1941. In 2014 they were auctioned off for $3.3 million to a telephone bidder who remains anonymous.
Marie Antoinette’s Diamond and Pearl Pendant
In 1791 a box was smuggled out of a palace in the french countryside. It made its way to brussels, then to Vienna under close guard. Inside the box was a selection of the most valuable and cherished of Marie Antoinette’s lavish jewelry collection. Her family had planned on escaping soon after, but as we all know her and her husband were fated for the guillotine. Part of her collection was passed down to her daughter when she came of age, and then through generations of the Bourbon-Parma family. The pearl itself is suspended from one large diamond and a diamond encrusted ribbon. It sold for a whopping $36 million in 2013 alongside other pieces that had not been worn in public for over 200 years. Marie Antoinette sometimes wore this broach as a pendant on a three strand pearl necklace with a diamond clasp. The necklace, comprised of 119 pearls, was sold at the same auction for $2.2 million.
The Susa Pearl Necklace
The oldest pearl necklace in the world sits in a (what I understand to be) hard to reach room of the Louvre. It was discovered in the tomb of an Archaemenid princess of Susa, modern day Iran, in 1908. It has three strands of 72 pearls each, is held together by bronze wire and dates back to around 400 BCE.
Cleopatra’s Pearl Earrings
During her famed romance with Mark Antony, Cleopatra once made a bet she could throw the most lavish, expensive dinner party in history. As a part of this bet, she wore a set of pearl earrings that evening worth around $28.5 million. At some point in the night she took off one of the pearls, crushed it, poured the dust into a glass of wine and drank it.