Part of the legendary jewellery collection of the late Elizabeth Taylor has just been auctioned at Christies, New York for the sum of £74 million, marking it as the most valuable jewellery auction in history.

A tribute to the discerning eye of this celebrated film star, fashion icon, and humanitarian, the sale saw seven new world auction records: price per carat for a colourless diamond and for a ruby; a pair of natural pearl ear pendants; a pearl jewel; an Indian jewel and an emerald jewel.

The top lot at the sale was the legendary 16th century pearl La Peregrina which realized over £7 million alone. It is one of the most famous pearls in the world with a most colourful history.

Discovered by an African slave during the 1500s in the Gulf of Panama, the pearl (which was the largest ever found at the time) was passed to the administrator of the Spanish colony there.

The pearl then found its way to Spain and was given to King Philip II of Spain, who presented his bride, Mary I of England with the pearl and a number of portraits exist which depict Queen Mary wearing the piece. After Mary’s death in 1558, the pearl was sent back to the Spanish Crown, where it remained as part of the royal jewellery collection for the next 250 years.

As one of the most prized pieces in the crown collection, La Peregrina was a favourite jewel amongst the Spanish queen consorts. It is documented as being worn by at least four of the Spanish Queens and has been depicted in many royal portraits over the years. It was significantly worn by the Queen of Spain for the celebration of the peace treaty between Spain and England in 1605.

In 1813 the King of Spain (Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s older brother) was forced to leave the kingdom, after a defeat at the Battle of Vitoria and he took some of the crown jewels with him, including La Peregrina. It was at this time that the pearl was named ‘La Peregrina’, meaning, ‘the traveller’. In his will, Joseph Bonaparte left the pearl to his nephew Charles Louis Bonaparte who later became Emperor Napoleon III. When he was exiled to England, Charles Louis sold La Peregrina to James Hamilton, Duke of Abercorn. The Marquis bought the pearl for his wife, Louisa Hamilton, Duchess of Abercorn. The pearl was so heavy that it fell out of its setting on at least two occasions (once in a sofa at Windsor Castle and once at a ball at Buckingham Palace) but was luckily recovered both times. The Hamiltons owned La Peregrina until 1969 when they auctioned it at Sotheby's in London.

It was bought by Richard Burton for £24,000 and presented to his wife, Elizabeth Taylor as a Valentine’s Day gift.
It seemed that yet again La Peregrina was fulfilling the implications of its name of ‘traveller’ or ‘wanderer’ when the pearl mysteriously disappeared in the couple’s hotel suite in Las Vegas.
Elizabeth Taylor recalled the incident in her book, ‘My Love Affair With Jewelry’:

"I had just received La Peregrina from New York on a delicate little chain and I was touching it like a talisman and sort of walking back and forth through our room at Caesar's Palace.”

"At one point I reached down to touch La Peregrina and it wasn't there! I glanced over at Richard and thank God he wasn't looking at me, and I went into the bedroom and threw myself on the bed, buried my head into the pillow and screamed.
Very slowly and very carefully, I retraced all my steps in the bedroom. I took my slippers off, took my socks off, and got down on my hands and knees, looking everywhere for the pearl. Nothing. I thought, ‘It's got to be in the living room in front of Richard. What am I going to do. He'll kill me!’ Because he loved the piece. Anything historical was important to him. La Peregrina is unique in the world of gems. It's one of the most extraordinary pieces there is.”   

"So I went out and sort of started humming lalalala, and I was walking back and forth in my bare feet, seeing if I would feel anything in the carpet. I was trying to be composed and look as if I had a purpose, because inside I was practically heaving I was so upset.”

It was at this point that Ms Taylor noticed her puppies and that one of them appeared to be chewing on a bone……..
"And I did the longest, slowest double take in my head. I thought, ‘Wait a minute, we don't give our dogs, especially the puppies bones! What is he chewing on?’ And I just wanted to put my hand over my mouth and scream again. But no, 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.”
"I did finally tell Richard. But I had to wait at least a week."

Elizabeth Taylor later designed the Ruby and Diamond Necklace with Al Durante of Cartier to offset what she called “the most perfect pearl in the world.”   

At 203 grains in size (the equivalent to 50 carats) and said to be the size of a pigeon egg, La Peregrina ranks as the most famous, large and perfectly symmetrical pear-shaped pearl in the world.

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