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Be A Burton: A Valentine's Day Pearl Story

Wed, Feb 14, 2024 | Pearl Blog

In honor of this year‘s Valentine’s Day, I want to cheekily encourage our guys to Be a Burton. Burton, you question? Yes! As in Richard Burton.

Richard Burton in The Robe

In this Pearl Girl's eyes, he gifted one of the most wonderful Valentine's Day gifts ever. Realistically, maybe we all can’t be a Burton on Valentine’s Day. (A girl can dream!) But, in 1969, Richard Burton created an amazing Valentine's Day story when he gifted Elizabeth Taylor with La Peregrina: an incredibly large natural pearl with an interesting and varied provenance. 

Elizabeth Taylor wearing La Peregrina

October 22, 1969 (Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy)

Richard Burton had acquired La Peregrina just weeks before Valentine's Day in 1969, when the pearl went up for auction in New York City. The pearl was the belle of the auction.

auction catalog 1969

Auction catalog, January 1969 Fine Jewels

Burton called the auction house and anonymously purchased the pearl, so Elizabeth Taylor would not get wind of his plan.  His price? $37,000. Using an inflation calculator, this would be the equivalent of $319,707.10 in 2024.

So, what is the big deal about this pearl he bought for Elizabeth? 

La Peregrina. Spanish for "the pilgrim." A pearl who has traveled across the world and back. It is a natural drop pearl measuring 17.35-17.9 x 25.5 mm pearl weighing 66 carats. It is an extremely large and impressive gem (which Elizabeth Taylor loved) with a long history (which Burton loved).


If you have tuned into some of my other pearl blog post, you know that the quest to discover the Americas was not only about the pursuit of gold. It encompass all sorts of riches… The richness of land, of new territory, of trade routes, of gold, yes, and, of course, of pearls. Imagine, at that point in our history, pearls have been revered for years. Europe was filled with pearls. However, the supply of pearls was drastically diminishing as years of over harvesting depleted this natural resource. Coming to the Americas, explorers discovered more pearls, both off the coastline, and in North and South American Rivers. La Peregrina famous pearl was found off the coast of Panama in the 1500s.

Imagine it, a huge pearl, naturally formed in an oyster. It was a truly remarkable find. A gorgeous drop shape. This was a true treasure!! And when it was discovered, it was turned over to Don Pedro de Temez, the administrator of the Panama colony. He took a ship to hand deliver it to Spain, and place it into the hands of the future King Phillip II. He, in turn, presented it to his wife, Queen Mary I of England, as a bridal gift. (Thank you Philip!)

Here she is wearing it in a 1554 portrait which now hangs in the Prado museum of Madrid.

Mary Tudor, Queen of England MOR, ANTHONIS Copyright ©Museo Nacional del Prado

Mary Tudor, Queen of England MOR, ANTHONIS  ©Museo Nacional del Prado

Although Mary died in 1558, four years after this portrait was painted, the pearl lived on. It remained in the Spanish crown jewel collection for 250 years until it was stolen by a famous Frenchman.

 The Bonapartes

In 1807, Napoleon Bonaparte marched his troops into Spain. He ousted the king and put his own brother Joseph Bonaparte in the position as the ruler of Spain. 

Joseph Bonaparte

Joseph Bonaparte, aka King Jose, ruled Spain for about five years until he abdicated the throne and was exiled to Switzerland. He stole La Peregrina and took it with him. 

Where did the pearl go?

Joseph never returned to France and went on the live in the U.S., England and finally Italy.

It is told that Joseph willed La Peregrina to his nephew, Louis Napoleon, upon his death in 1844. Four years later, Louis Napoleon, also known as Napoleon III, became the first president of France and he used La Peregrina to finance his rise to power by selling the pearl to his friend James Hamilton.

Duke of Abercorn

James was a British nobleman with love on his mind (I mean, this is a Valentine's Day story!). He gifted the pearl to his wife, Louisa. In a memoir many years later, one of their sons tells that the pearl was a source of anxiety for his mother because she was constantly losing it! La Peregrina was still undrilled at this time and it would easily fall out of it setting.

James was appointed the First Duke of Abercorn and the pearl passed along this line. First to his son, the second duke, who had it drilled so his own wife could wear it without fear of losing it. And onward to the third duke who offered it to a London jewelry dealer for auction.

And this is how the pearl ended up in a New York City auction house in 1969.

 A Twist!

But here is an interesting part of the story. As the curators were preparing for the auction in 1969, members of the Spanish royal family contacted them to let them know they were not selling La Peregrina. They couldn’t sell it. It was in the collection of the aging queen, Victoria Eugenie, widow of King Alfonso, XIII, who was exiled in Switzerland.

Okay, let's take a moment to marvel at this woman and all of her pearls. I love it!! Among all those necklaces, do you see the large pearl drop on a chain? This is the pearl she claims to be La Peregrina.

It's A Fight

A heated argument ensued and experts and auction executives held emergency meetings. What pearl were they about to auction off and where was the real La Peregrina? Finally, Sothebys authenticated La Peregrina as the real pearl. (At least, so they claim.)

Queen Victoria Eugenie died months later, believing her pearl was the true Peregrina. Experts disagreed with her. Despite the controversy, the sale proceeded, and Burton got the gem for Taylor. 


1969 (Collection Christophel/Alamy)

By February, Richard Burton was exposed as the buyer when he presented The Pearl to Elizabeth Taylor. At the time, the pearl was set as a pendant on a simple pearl chain. Taylor loved the pearl and wore it in her cameo roll in an of 1000 days. She loved wearing it both in public and on film sets.

In the early 1970s, she decided to have a new setting to showcase La Peregrina. She needed to go bigger! Her inspiration came from the portrait of Mary I, Queen of Scots.

She brought photographs and sketches with her to Cartier, who began working on the new necklace. And here is how La Peregrina ended up:

Long after her marriages to Burton, Elizabeth Taylor cherished this necklace. The love may not have lasted but the pearl lived on! She enjoyed wearing it for 40 years! 

The necklace was displayed in public for the first time at Christie’s in 2002 and again at the Smithsonian in 2005. When Elizabeth Taylor passed away in March 2011 the necklace was auctioned off at Christie’s in New York.

It sold for more than $10.5 million and the owner of the necklace is once again anonymous. 

Maybe, just maybe, it was another gift for Valentine's Day!

Y'all have a great day and remember to Be A Burton! Or maybe, just maybe, Keep the Pearl After Burton! Maybe that is the true story here! Keep the pearl, Pearl Girls!! Love you!! 




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