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Getting to know Gems
How to select, buy, care for, and enjoy Pearl Jewelry

Legendary Pearls, legendary tales

For centuries, stories of legendary pearls have captured the imagination of people the world over, adding to their allure and stirring inextinguishable flames within the hearts and soul of adventurers and poets.  These legendary treasures each carry a story almost as fabulous as the pearls themselves; tales of love, tales of hope, tales of power, tales of political intrigue, tales of search and discovery.

Antony and Cleopatra - A costly love potion

The story of Antony and Cleopatra is known to be one of the greatest love stories of all time. Surpassed, perhaps, only by the story of her rare pearls.
According to legend, Antony was so taken by Cleopatra that he did everything within his power to bring her pleasure, sparing no expense. Especially elaborate were the sumptuous feasts he provided her, but at which Cleopatra simply scoffed. One day she boasted that she could easily put on a much more extravagant affair, and spend 10 million sesterci (an amount equal to a king’s ransom) on just one meal for him.  He wagered that she could not.  Cleopatra provided Antony with a lovely meal, at which she appeared adorned with a pair of magnificent pearl earrings described by Pliny to be two most precious pearls, the singular and only (such) jewel in the world, and even Nature’s wonder.  Antony didn’t find  the meal particularly exceptional and mockingly asked to see the bill. Cleopatra exclaimed that she’d spent well over the 10,000,000 but to avoid any doubt, she removed a pearl from her ear, dissolved it in a cup of vinegar, and, toasting Antony, drank it down! A king’s ransom in one swallow.  She proceeded to remove the other, but the judge of the bet could not bear it, and, grabbing it from her hand, declared Antony the loser.  The remaining pearl, Pliny tells us, was cut in half and made into earrings for the statue of Venus; the goddess of love of course, in the Pantheon temple in Rome, commemorating the bet.

La Peregrina - “The Unconquerable”

We are not sure about the origins of this magnificent pearl, or exactly when it was discovered, but we notice it first in paintings of Mary Tudor on her wedding day (in 1554). Mary Tudor received LaPeregina as gift from her husband, Philip II, King of Spain, to whom it was a gift from America, presented to him by Don Diego de Temes. We know it came from the waters of South America, but we aren’t sure of the exact circumstances. One story suggests it was found by a slave, off the cost of Panama, and because of it he was granted his freedom.  Whatever the case, it became part of the Spanish treasury from the mid 1500s, where it remained until 1813. It can be seen in famous 17th century Velazquez paintings of the wives of Philip IV, and in the 1700s it gained attention at the French court of Louis XIV in Versailles, adorning the Spanish king’s hat at the wedding of his daughter Maria Theresa to Louis.  It left Spain in 1813 and went to France with Joseph Bonaparte after his abdication.  A descendant, Prince Louis Napoleon, sold it to the Marquis of Abercorn in order to get out of serious financial trouble, so it found its way to England. The marquis gave it to his wife, who had a difficult time holding onto it (it was, after all, an undrilled pearl, so it couldn’t be fastened into a setting).  It seems that on one occasion, at a ball at Buckingham Palace, she discovered it was missing from her necklace, only to spot it in the velvety folds of the train of another lady going into dinner.  On another occasion, at Windsor Castle, she lost it again, but luckily found it in the upholstery of a sofa. when her son acquired it, he had it drilled.
The pearl was cleaned, polished, and weighted in 1913, at which time it was reported at 203.84 grains (there are four grains to a carat).
The pearl received tremendous publicity in 1969 when it was sold at auction by Sotheby’s to actress Elizabeth Taylor for $37,000.  It seems only fitting that it should have found a home with Ms. Taylor. After all, it was she who played Cleopatra, and from all descriptions, this pearl, like Cleopatra’s gem, has no rival today, and is truly worth a king’s ransom!  Cartier Jewelers was commissioned to create a magnificent necklace to highlight this gem.

La Pelegrina - The Incomparable

La Pelegrina is another magnificent pearl from the Spanish Treasury. Weighting 111.5 grains, it is a perfect “egg” shape, of very high quality, with such a silvery luster that it seems almost transparent. To find a pearl of such quality, in a size so large, is truly a rarity.  We know little about the origins of this pearl, but believe it also came from South America.  It was a wedding gift from King Philip IV to his daughter Maia Thresa upon her marriage to Louis XIV in 1660, and thus went to France. It virtually disappears from that time until the mid 1800s, when it turns up in the Russian Imperial Treasury.  It was sold in Moscow to Princess Youssoupoff and was handed down through the family. The Youssoupoff family was an important and very influential part of the Russian royal family; it was at the Yousoupoff palace in St. Petersburg that Rasputin was murdered prior to the revolution.) In 1987, La Pelegrina was sold at  auction by Christie’s in Geneva for $463,800.

The “Hope” Pearl shows that all things are possible

The Hope pearl was owned by Henry Hope, the famous 19th century banker (perhaps best known for the “Hope Diamond,” the magnificent blue diamond now owned by the Smithsonian Institution).  It is the largest historical pearl known, and, by virtue of its very size, certainly one “hope” that all things are possible.  A freshwater “river” pearl pearl, it is truly a giant.  This massive pearl weighs 1,800 grains; about 450 carats, or 3 ounces, and measures 2 inches long by 4-1/2 inches in diameter at the widest point and 3-3/4 inches at the narrowest point! It is shaped very much like the foxglove just before it blossoms, and is pure white at the narrow end, becoming a greenish bronze color at the large end.
Hope’s collection was on exhibition at the Geological Museum in South Kensington, England, for several years and was then sold in 1886. We don’t know what happened to many of these pearls. In 1908, the “Hope” was offered by Garrard & Co., Jewelers to the British Crown, for 9,000 British pounds.  In 1974 it was offered again privately, for $200,000.

Elizabeth I - The Queen of Pearls
“A pale Roman nose, ahead of hair loaded with crowns and powdered with diamonds, a vast ruff,
a vaster fardingale, and a bushel of pearls, are features by which everyone knows at once the pictures
of Queen Elizabeth.”
(Sir Horace Walpole (1717 - 1797), Novelist)

When one pictures Queen Elizabeth I of England, the immediate image that comes to mind is one of a great monarch completely bedecked in pearls.  It is interesting to note that she was not at all interested in wearing jewelry for personal adornment when she was young, and even later in life she cared little for any gem except the pearl. She develop a passionate love for pearls, one that knew no bounds. She covered her gowns and robes as well as herself in pearls, her love was so great that she even purchased thousands of imitation pearls to incorporate into her needs. Even on her deathbed she was not without her pearls.
No one has ever loved pearls to the extent of Queen Elizabeth. She had over 3,000 gowns decorated with pearls, 80 pearl-bedecked wigs, and chests of pearl strands, pearl rings, pearl earrings, and pearl pendants.  Dozens of grooms and pages were required to air her gowns daily and dust and polish the jewelry.

Elizabeth and the Hanoverian Pearls

Elizabeth sought the finest pearls available and obtained them from the Crown Jewels of Scotland, Burgundy, Portugal, and Navarre. She beat Catherine de Medici to the famous “Hanoverian Pearls,” which by rights should have been Catherine’s.  Catherine had received them as a gift on her wedding day from her uncle, Pope Clement VII. She gave them to her so, the Dauphin of France, who gave them to his wife, Mary, Queen of Scots.  Her collection of jewels was sold to replenish the bankrupt treasury, and Elizabeth succeeded in obtaining the exquisite pearls fro 12,000 crowns. Catherine de Medici, in an effort to retrieve the pearls, wrote to request the help of the Spanish ambassador to London.  He wrote back that she was too late; that Elizabeth had already gotten her hands on them!
Dating from the 14th century, these pearls (known today as the Hanoverian Pearls) consisted of six extremely long ropes of very well matched, very large, exceptionally fine pearls, and 25 loose pearls the size of small walnuts.  They are considered the finest pearls in Europe.  They were passed by Elizabeth to James I, and from him to his daughter, Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia, and ultimately passed through the House of Hanover into the Crown Jewels of England.

La Regente

We know very little about this interesting egg shaped pearl prior to French Revolution except that it was part of the French Crown Jewels.  It is a very large pearl, weighing about 337 grains (over 84 carats) with a truly exquisite shape.  It was sold at auction in Geneva in 1988 for over $850,000

Tiffany’s “Queen” Pearl

As already mentioned, North America was a land rich with freshwater; or river, pearls the time of the discovery of the new world. Many lakes, rivers, and streams yielded lovely pearls, especially the waters of the Mississippi Valley, and although this supply was rapidly depleted to meet the demand of European royalty, the occasional natural pearl is still found today.
The largest American freshwater pearl, however, came from a place not associated with pearls: northern New Jersey. It was discovered in 1857 by a shoemaker named David Howell while fishing for mussels in a small local stream near his home in Paterson, New Jersey.  While eating, he found a huge pearl weighing almost 400 grains (100 carats) on his plate; a pearl that, not knowing it was there, he had spoiled by frying!
Word of the find spread quickly, and a few days later a carpenter who lived nearby discovered an exquisite pink pearl. It weighed 93 grains (over 13 carats) and had a lovely shape. Charles Tiffany purchased the pearl and, unable to find an American buyer for this precious pearl, sold it to the Empress Eugenie, after whom it was named “the Queen Pearl.” Unfortunately, in the next few years people fished the stream dry, totally eliminating the mussel population for which it had become famous, along with the lovely pearls they created.

Pearls of India - Mogul Legends

We know of the historic splendor of India (including what we call Pakistan today), and of some of its most magnificent historical pearls primarily from the writings and drawings in Travels in India, a book by the great 17th century traveler and writer, J. B. Tavernier. There can be no question that the rulers of India loved pearls and placed a very high value on them. Tavernier describes how pearls were used lavishly in jewelry, clothing, and even furniture.  But the most vivid images are conjured up by his description of the Peacock Throne.
The great Peacock Throne, Tavernier tells us, contained many fine pearls; and the canopy under which it sat was embroidered with diamonds and pearls.  Over the canopy sat the gold and gem studded peacock from which the throne got its name.  Around the Peacock’s neck hung a magnificent pearl, which came to rest at the center of its breast. The pearl, described as weighing 200 grains (50 carats), was suspended from a magnificent, fiery red “balas ruby” (which we know today is not ruby, but another beautiful gem called spinel).
Tavernier visited India and saw many of the jewels of the great Mogul emperors during his visits there.  In addition to the pearl in the Peacock throne, he describes five other pearls in particular; and even provides his reader with a sketch of each, one of which, he claims, had been the largest and most perfect ever discovered, with no defects whatever.  He tells how it was bought in 1633 by the King of Persia, the Shaista Khan, from an Arab trader.  It was shaped exactly like a pear, even having slightly concave sides, and based on the sketch by Tavernier, weighed perhaps as much as 500 grains (125 carats). It is now believed that this pearl is the same as the “Sara,” sold by Christie’s in 1992.
In addition to the pearl in the Peacock Throne, and the perfect pearl mentioned above, he describes another interesting “olive shaped” pearl. This pearl, he tells us, weighed about 125 grains ( over 32 carats) and was suspended from the middle of a strand of rubies and emeralds that when worn around the neck of the Mogul Emperor, hung all the way down to his waist.
Travernier also describes what was believed to be the largest pearl ever taken from the West to East; a per shaped pearl found off the coast of Venezuela near the Island of Margarita. And last, but not least, he describes a perfectly round pearl weighing about 110 grains (over 97 carats) which, he explains, the Great Mogul had never worn for lack of a match.  Were he to have found a match, they would no doubt have been worn in earrings.
India is indeed a land where the pearl was revered.  We read of it in the ancient sacred Hindu texts; we read of it in Islamic texts; we read of it in Tavernier; and we can see today in the treasuries of India and Pakistan the finest of pearls, of every description.  Loose pearls and mounted, magnificent art objects, and pearl strands by the thousands.

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To Web Masters:

The article above can be used on your web site or newsletter.

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Bijan Aziz is the owner and Web Master for The Jewelry Hut.

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