This past Tuesday, Christie’s auction house in New York held a sale of Elizabeth Taylor’s jewelry: 80 pieces totaling a whopping $116 million. At the top of that list was a necklace featuring one of the most celebrated pearls in the world — La Peregrina.
The pearl is familiar in Rienzi’s Gallery, where it is prominently depicted in the 17th-century portrait Margaret of Austria, Queen of Spain. The jewel made its way to Hollywood royalty in 1969, when Richard Burton purchased the gem for his then-wife Liz Taylor (the first time around), who had Cartier reset it in a diamond-and-ruby necklace. At 50 carats, The Pilgrim, as it has been titled, is the largest natural pear-shaped pearl ever recorded—and the history behind this monumental gem is almost equal in weight.
The pearl was discovered in the mid-16th century by an African slave of a Spanish colony located in the Gulf of Panama. The gem was presented to King Philip II of Spain, in exchange for which the slave was made free. The king's wife, Queen Mary I of England, is shown in several royal portraits wearing the jewel. Upon succession in 1598, King Philip III gave the pearl to his bride, Margaret of Austria, Queen of Spain, a member of the house Habsburg whose brother became Holy Roman Emperor.
Margaret is frequently depicted wearing the epic pearl, which was clearly a favorite ornament. Rienzi’s portrait, which is on long-term loan from the MFAH collection of European Art, is one of several similar portraits by the official painter to the court, Juan Pantoja de la Cruz.
In the full-length painting, Margaret wears a white damask gold-embroidered dress, a saya entera, the basic female garment consisting of a tightly fitted bodice and full skirt. The rounded sleeves, mangas redondas, are slit at the elbow to expose closely fitting under-sleeves, trimmed with lace. The queen’s bodice and epaulets are studded with clusters of jewels, and she wears a heavy belt encrusted with pearls and cut gems.
Pantoja’s formal painting style reinforces the stiff and severe fashions of the Spanish royal court at the time. Garments were designed to display wealth and magnificence above all else. Spanish courtly dress remained virtually unchanged from the mid-1550s to the end of the reign of Philip III, in 1621. Both men and women were encased in stiff, heavily embroidered materials, adorned with an array of jewels. The techniques for cutting stones into facets were not understood until later in the 17th century. Before that, simple gems were enhanced by elaborate metal settings, much like those shown on the on the queen’s headdress, bodice, and waist.
The queen’s dress also features large jeweled clasps, known as puntas, attached along her sleeves and skirt. Eight of these gold fastenings, in pairs of sword-like forms, run down the front of her skirt, tied with grey ribbons. Her headdress is made of white feathers and jewels, held with a pearl-studded comb, and at her throat is a heavily starched cartwheel ruff, fashionable in the 1590s. The entire garment is, in effect, a precious material, the cloth sewn through with gold and silver threads.
But the pièce de résistance of Margaret’s ensemble is suspended at the center of her chest above a double strand of pearls—a large pendant known as the joyel rico. Composed of a diamond, la Estanca, and the celebrated pearl, la Peregrina, the jewel was undoubtedly precious to the queen, as she wore it in several of her royal portraits.
As depicted by Pantoja, Margaret’s full lips and prominent jaw are unmistakable Habsburg family characteristics; however, the overall effect of the painting is a resounding flatness. The stiff, formal qualities of the painting make the image less of an individualized portrait than a statement of wealth and power. The very shape of the queen’s body has been overwhelmed by her stiffly erect costume, displaying the splendor of the Spanish royal court.
Margaret of Austria and King Philip III had five children who survived into adulthood, one of whom—Anne—married Louis XIII, King of France, and became the mother of Louis XIV. The pearl passed through the hands of Spanish royalty until 1808, when the brother of Napoleon, Joseph Bonaparte, ended his very brief reign as King of Spain by absconding to England with several of the royal jewels. It was at that time that the pearl secured its title, as the Pilgrim, or the Wanderer. In England it was sold to the Hamilton family, and there it remained until 1969 when Richard Burton purchased it for Elizabeth Taylor at a Sotheby’s auction for $37,000.
The Wanderer has once again settled with a new owner (for $11.6 million), but you are invited to view the pearl in the halls of Rienzi’s Gallery for the bargain price of an admission ticket.