Author Lynn Cullen On Elizabeth Taylor's Wandering Pearl

Have you ever wondered who a piece of jewelry belonged to before it became yours? Or maybe you've wondered what happened to a particular ring or bracelet that you saw in a piece of art? We'll you aren't the only one. Questions like these tickled author Lynn Cullen's mind until she decided to create a historical fiction tale to document the movements of one particular pearl in the collection owned by the recently deceased Elizabeth Taylor.

Elizabeth Taylor owned many spectacular jewels, but none of them has a more fascinating pedigree than the pearl called La Peregrina (The Wanderer). The pearl lives up to its name. Since its first appearance in the sixteenth century, it has made its way from breast to breast of many a famous woman.  

It has lain upon the stiff bodice of Mary I of England, known to us, perhaps unfairly, as Bloody Mary. It has dangled jauntily from the cap worn by Elisabeth of Valois, the teenaged wife of the Spanish King with the ill-fated Armada, Philip II. It has posed for its portrait by the first female painter of the Renaissance, Sofonisba Anguissola. If it could talk, the stories it would tell!

According to legend, the world’s largest (originally 55.95 carats) and most perfect white pear-shaped pearl was found in the Gulf of Panama by a slave who was given his freedom by presenting it to his master. A conquistador was said to then give it to Philip II, who in turn bestowed it upon his first wife, Bloody Mary.

I believe that the pearl came into Spanish hands even earlier. During his third and fourth voyages, Christopher Columbus found pearl beds in Venezuela, Panama, and Honduras. He and his men collected sackfuls of pearls, setting off a world-wide “pearl rush.” It is not unlikely that a certain pearl about the size of a pigeon egg wandered its way from Columbus’s bag into the coffers of the Spanish monarchs. I like to think that it paused in the hands of Juana the Mad. She could have used the distraction.  

This unfortunate queen was forced to cool her royal heels in a small palace for forty-six years, the prisoner of her father Ferdinand I, and her son, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Her crime? Being the legitimate ruler of the largest kingdom in the world when they desired her power. Queen Juana may not have been able to escape, but her pearl did.

It is known that her grandson, who would later become Philip II, stopped to see her on his way for a prenuptial peek at his first wife. Perhaps a hand-off was made then, and the sixteen-year-old Philip in turn awarded the pearl to his bride (and double-cousin), Maria Manuela of Portugal. Like many of La Peregrina’s owners, Maria Manuela did not live long to enjoy it—only about two years after receiving it, time enough to conceive a child and die a month after the delivery.  

Philip then re-gifted the pearl to his next wife, Mary I of England. This was not a love match. Eleven years older than her twenty-seven-year old groom, Bloody Mary earned her sobriquet for persecuting Protestants during her rule of England. (Tellingly, her half-sister Elizabeth I just as ruthlessly persecuted Catholics during her reign, but she was never called Bloody Elizabeth.) As unloved by many of her people as by her husband, Mary was to spend a fraction of her four years of wedlock with Philip. She could possess the Wanderer, but she could not possess her husband.

This, however, gave Mary plenty of time to have her portraits painted with the pearl. When Richard Burton presented La Peregrina to Elizabeth Taylor in 1969, one of Mary’s portraits wearing the pearl was used to establish the worth of the gem--$37,000, then quite a princely sum. In fact, the Hollywood couple consulted Mary’s (and the pearl’s) portrait in deciding how the gem should be set.

Centuries passed as La Peregrina silently continued its journey from one privileged neck to another. Its travels would not create a stir until it made headlines in 1969, in its role of Richard Burton’s newest over-the-top gift to his beloved wife.  

Even then, it proved to be slippery. La Peregrina was almost lost for eternity when one of Ms. Taylor’s Pekingese puppies mistook it as a chew toy. The pearl was pried from the dog’s mouth unscathed, but thereafter, when not gracing Elisabeth’s person, was locked away in a vault for security—rather like Queen Juana, five hundred years earlier.

Now, the gem as inimitable as its last earthly owner prepares to begin its wanderings anew. It cannot be contained no more than could she. Safe travels, fair pilgrims, until your journey's end.

Follow the travels of La Peregrina in the Renaissance Spanish court in Lynn Cullen’s novel The Creation of Eve and in her upcoming Reign of Madness releasing August 4th.