Smithsonian Unveils Allure of Pearls Exhibit

It’s called La Peregrina, The Wanderer, The Pilgrim. It is, by all accounts, the largest, finest example of a teardrop-shape natural pearl in the world. And it once was dog food. Now it’s on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in an exhibit called The Allure of Pearls.

Native Central Americans were harvesting pearls centuries before the Europeans arrived. And when they did arrive, Spanish conquistadors and explorers like Vasco Nuñez de Balboa (1475–1519) brought pearls back to Europe. One of those pearls, a treasure for Spain, was La Peregrina. Some trace its discovery by a slave in the Gulf of Panama to the early 1500s. It weighs 50.96 cts. and is described as a perfectly symmetrical drop-shape natural pearl.

La Peregrina wandered among European royalty from Phillip II of Spain (1527–1598) through Emperor Napoleon III of France (1808–1873). It shows up in royal portraits, such as Mary Tudor’s (Queen Mary I of England, daughter of King Henry VIII of England, who married then Prince Phillip II of Spain), and so its history has been well recorded—up to the late 1800s. From there, the history is vague until 1969, when actor Richard Burton saw it at auction. Burton purchased the pearl for $37,000 and gave it to his wife, actress Elizabeth Taylor. She later had Cartier reset it with pearls, diamonds, and rubies.

And while all of this history is fascinating, another, more recent, piece of history—the time the jewel fell from the necklace—adds the element of suspense. As she tells it in her book

Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair With Jewelry, Taylor had recently received the pearl, and both she and Burton were in their suite at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Taylor was wearing the pearl which was suspended from a delicate pearl and diamond neck chain. And then it was not. Taylor felt it missing and quickly went in search of the pearl gone AWOL.

Taylor and Burton had brought with them their two dogs, Taylor’s white Pekingese and Burton’s orangey-brown Pekingese. While Taylor was frantically looking for the jewel, quietly hiding her dismay from a napping Burton, the puppies were busy eating dinner. Taylor said she saw her dog chewing on a bone, and then suddenly realized that they didn’t give the puppies dog bones. Holding back screams, she reached down and pulled the pearl and diamond pendant out of the dog’s mouth. “And it was—thank you, God—not scratched,” she writes.

On exhibit with La Peregrina is the 450 ct. Hope Pearl. Related in ownership to the Hope Diamond, it is the first time the two gems have been in the same room for over one and a half centuries. Alongside these two and other fantastic pearls, visitors will see the world’s largest pearl, the 600 ct. Pearl of Asia.

The Allure of Pearls will run through Sept. 5, 2005. For more information, visit the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Web site at www.mnh.si.edu.