The cost of a pearl of great price

The actress Elizabeth Taylor’s art, clothes, furnishings and jewellery are being sold by Christie’s auction house this week and next, with the best of the jewellery to be auctioned in New York on 13 December.  Lot No. 12 is La Peregrina, meaning ‘the wanderer’ or ‘the pilgrim’, a pearl of impeccable provenance.  Christie’s estimates it will sell for $2-3m.

The pearl was found in the Gulf of Panama during the first half of the 16th century. Spain was then colonising Central America, and Spanish colonists presented the pearl to the Spanish king, Philip II.

Mary Tudor, from National Portrait Gallery

Mary Tudor, NPG4980 (16), in Wikimedia Commons

In 1554, Philip II married his cousin Mary Tudor, the English queen, and presented her with the pearl as a bridal gift.  She wears it in a pendant setting in a portrait, now in the National Portrait Gallery.  At the time it was the largest pearl ever found, weighing in at nearly 56 carats (11.2 grams).  By comparison with today’s perfectly round cultured pearls, it looks rather misshapen, but its symmetrical pear shape, as well as its size, made it precious.

The development of a cultured pearl industry in the 20th century has wiped out the rarity value of pearls.  Nowadays anyone can wear pearls – so nowadays, nobody but fuddy-duddies wants to do so.  But once pearls were rare, expensive and therefore highly desirable.  When Cleopatra famously drank a crushed pearl dissolved in vinegar, it was to win a bet with Anthony that she could present him with the most expensive meal imaginable – conspicuous consumption on a grand scale.

Finding pearls was hard and dangerous work. Pearl divers, many of them women, worked in terrible conditions.  They developed the ability to hold their breath for long periods, sometimes diving to great depths to collect wild oysters. The Gulf of Mannar between India and Sri Lanka was one of the main sources of pearls for 2000 years, mentioned by Pliny the Elder.

The pearl trade made great fortunes too.  One Scottish merchant, Hugh Gordon, made his fortune from the pearl trade in the late 18th century.  When he retired, he bought an estate in Scotland and named it Manar.  When his son Hugh migrated to Australia in 1835, he in turn named his Braidwood estate Manar.  In fact Australia’s links with the pearl trade are deep.  There was a pearl industry all along the north coast, from Torres Strait to Broome, during the late 19th and early 20th century.  The Commissioner of Fisheries William Saville-Kent did the first experiments in cultured pearl production in Australia, but the Japanese developed and patented the technology (1917) from his ideas.

Mary Tudor died without issue in 1558.  Her kingdom passed to her half sister Elizabeth – but her widower took the pearl!  Various Spanish queens subsequently wore it, including one of Philip’s later wives, and it remained part of the Spanish crown jewels until the 19th century.  In 1808, the French invaded and Napoleon Bonaparte put his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne.  When the French were defeated 5 years later, Joseph fled, taking some of the crown jewels with him, including La Peregrina.  It was at this point that the pearl acquired its name – ‘the wanderer’.  Eventually it was sold to James Hamilton, Duke of Abercorn, and remained in the Hamilton family until 1969.

Taylor and Burton in Cleopatra film

That year the pearl was auctioned at Sotheby’s.  Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had met on the set of that great white elephant of a film, Cleopatra, so perhaps the pearl had a special meaning for them.  He bought it for her 37th birthday, for $37,000.  The under bidder was an anonymous member of the Spanish royal family, then in exile during the Franco years.

For a jewel, the pearl is heavy, and several times it has fallen out of its setting.  In her book Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair with Jewelry, Taylor tells the story of how the pearl got lost while the Burtons were staying at Las Vegas, and she found it in her puppy’s mouth:

I just casually opened the puppy’s mouth and inside his mouth was the most perfect pearl in the world. It was—thank God—not scratched.

Conspicuous consumption indeed.  Taylor’s book was published in 2002.  I heard a version of this story long ago from a historian of the gem trade, who said that the dog left teeth marks on the pearl.  If so, Christies isn’t saying.

Meanwhile, just this week, a 76-year-old Aboriginal man has finally received back pay of $3000 for his work as a pearl diver in Torres Strait during the 1940s; his twin brother missed out because he couldn’t provide documentary evidence of his work.

Update: The pearl sold for $US11.8m, far above its estimate, and the auction was a great success.  Apparently there’s still plenty of money around somewhere!

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