Unlike gemstones that are mined from Earth, pearls are produced by a natural organism. There are many different types of pearls depending on what mollusk they originate from. Natural pearls are found in the wild and usually in salt water. These are very rare and the most valuable as they take years to obtain. Others are 'cultured' which means they grow naturally in salt or fresh water however they just need help getting started. These are the most commonly known and used today and usually originate from oysters but can come from mussels as well.
Here is a photo of a pearl formed in an oyster
The 4 Standards
Pearls are judged on four standards;
Going in order of value, perfectly round pearls are the best and most desired. From there it then goes to tear drop, ovals, buttons and then semi spheres. The cheapest are usually the uneven pearls called "baroque's" which are misshaped and covered in lumps. These ones are particularly my favorites.
Left photo: Example of perfectly round freshwater peacock pearls. Right photo: Baroque green freshwater pearls. Both necklaces made by Drowning Bear.
The ones that are "worse" than baroques or too damaged to sell get crushed up and are used in beauty products, so nothing is wasted.
Fun fact, pearl powder is actually really healthy for skin.
Here is a photo of another baroque white pearl which is the famous "Canning Jewel" Europe, 1850-1860
The center white baroque pearl looks like the center torso of a male body and was made into this magnificent pendant of a merman set with rubies and diamonds with enamel and gold.
Perhaps the most famous, this perfectly pear shaped pearl is believed to be one of the most symmetrical natural pearls ever to be found, even to this day. Drenched in history, glamour and folklore, this pearl truly lives up to it's meaning; 'the female wanderer'. From a pathway to freedom to an extraordinary Valentines Day gift, La Peregrina has quite the story to tell.
It was first discovered in the Gulf of Panama in the 16th century. Rumor has it that it was found by a slave in 1513 and was granted freedom in exchange. The other story was that it was found by a traveler who was captured and offered the pearl in exchange for his freedom. No one really knows or has any proof how it went down but what we do know for certain is that whoever found this remarkable gem, turned it over to Don Pedro de Temez, the administrator of the Panama colony at the time.
Temez then carried the pearl back to his Spanish homeland where he gifted it to the future King Phillip II of Spain. King Phillip presented La Peregrina as a bridal gift to Queen Mary I of England in 1554. For the short amount of time she had it, she always made a point to get her portrait done wearing the pearl.
Mary Tudor wearing La Peregrina by Anthonis Mor 1554
The marriage between Queen Mary and King Philip of Spain was very difficult and unpopular amongst the public. Mary loved King Phillip however Philip, 10 years younger than Mary, did not feel the same way. He had mistresses in both England and Spain, one being Queen Mary's sister, Queen Elizabeth I of England.
When King Phillip gifted Mary La Peregrina, her sister Elizabeth was furious and jealous of its beauty. She would spend most of her life causing kaos amonst the gem traders searching for one better, or even one just like it, but unfortunately never could. When Queen Mary I died, King Phillip would go on to marry twice more and La Peregrina was returned to The Kingdom of Spain, where it remained one of the crown jewels for some 250 years.
It was worn by Spanish queens at significant historical events. Queen Margaret for example, wife of Phillip III, wore the beloved pearl to the celebration of the 1605 peace treaty between England and Spain. After her, the pearl was then passed to Queen Isabel and then again to Queen Mariana until her death in 1696.
Skipping forward to the early 1800's, Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte ruled Spain for about five years. When he was ousted following the French defeat at the Battle of Vittoria, he took some of the crown jewels with him back to France, including the famous pear-shaped pearl. Joseph later willed the pearl to his nephew, who would become Napoleon III, Emperor of France. It was then sold to the Duke of Abercorn as a gift for his lovely wife, the Duchess Louisa Hamilton. Some say because it was quite heavy, measuring approximately 17.35 – 17.90 x 25.50 mm, it often fell out of its setting. Rumor has it that the pearl was often lost in the sofas at both Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace. Luckily it had been found on both occasions!
The Best Valentines Gift
The Hamilton family owned La Peregrina until 1969 when they decided to auction the pearl at Sotheby's London. Hollywood royal and romantic Richard Burton bought the pearl for $37,000 for his wife Elizabeth Taylor as a remarkable and one-of-a-kind Valentine’s Gift. They both adored the pearl and in fact, in one of Taylors books, Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair With Jewelry tells the story of how she thought she almost lost the pearl in their suite 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.” Then Taylor noticed one of their puppies was chewing on something. She continues, “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.”