La Peregrina and the Mancini Pearls

10 May 2011

I love looking at royal jewels – they are splendid, of course but there’s also something so intimate about pieces that have adorned the ears, necks or wrists of royal ladies over several generations. It always seems amazing to me that pieces like the fabulous pendant pearl La Peregrina which was given to Mary I of England as a wedding present by King Philip II of Spain then ended up in the hands of several other royal ladies, including Queens Elisabeth, Margarita and Mariana of Spain (Philip reclaimed the pearl after Mary’s death, probably to Elizabeth I’s chagrin!) and, after it was nicked by Joseph Bonaparte and entered the rapacious clutches of the Bonaparte family, Empress Eugénie before finally ending up adorning the beauteous neck of the late Elizabeth Taylor.

I adore that she wore it while making her cameo appearance in Anne of A Thousand Days. Richard Burton bought it for $37,000 and presented it to Elizabeth in 1969. He was so fascinated by the pearl’s amazing history that he considered writing a book about it but in the end contented himself with helping the National Portrait Gallery buy a Hans Eworth painting of Mary Tudor wearing it as part of a brooch.

I had recently received the Peregrina on the little chain and I was touching it like a talisman.  We had the top floor at Caesar’s Palace and walking back and forth through the room I reached down to touch the pearl and it wasn’t there!  I glanced at Richard and thank God he wasn’t looking at me, I went in to the bedroom and buried my head into the pillow and screamed.  Very slowly I retraced all my steps in the bedroom in my bare feet.  I was walking by the white Pekingese and Richard’s brown Pekingese with all the puppies, it was feeding time and I said “Hi babies, such sweet little babies…” then I noticed one of the puppies chewing on a bone—I thought—we don’t give our puppies bones!  I just casually opened the puppy’s mouth and inside was the most perfect pearl in the world—and thank God—not scratched!  Richard loved that pearl, anything historic was important to him.  This pearl is unique in the world of gems, it’s one of the most extraordinary pieces there is and I knew that he was proud inside. I did finally tell Richard—but I had to wait a week!”’ — Elizabeth Taylor.

Perfect, glowing, luminous – pearls have always traditionally been given as gifts of love. These gorgeous earrings were once given as a gift by the young Louis XIV to his first love, Marie Mancini. One can only imagine her delight when he presented them to her!

It’s not known where the Mancini pearls started their career, but it seems likely that they were made for one of the ladies at the Medici court in Florence – probably Eleonora dei’ Toledo, who seems to have been excessively fond of pearls and popularised the wearing of pearl drop earrings in Florentine high society. Such splendid pearls must surely have been worn by her and perhaps they are the ones that she is shown sporting in the famous Bronzino portraits of her.

The pearl earrings remained in the hands of the Medici family until Maria Medici, the daughter of Francesco dei’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany travelled to France to become the second wife of Henri IV. The new Queen of France brought with her a 600,000 crown dowry and a fabulous collection of jewels, which included the pair of pearl drop earrings. Marie was so fond of jewels that she is said to have ordered a dress sewn with 3,000 diamonds and 39,000 pearls, which is believed to have been worth the equivalent of £10 million. The jewels would have come from the royal collections but even so…

When her pretty and frivolous youngest daughter, Henriette Marie went to England in 1625 to marry the young Charles I, she took the pearl earrings with her as part of an exceedingly lavish dowry, presumably as a present from her doting maman. Another daughter, Elisabeth was married to the King of Spain and had assumed ownership of La Peregrina so that seems fair enough…

When you look at portraits by Van Dyke of the ladies of Charles and Henrietta Maria’s court, they are more often than not wearing huge pearl drop earrings, much like the Queen’s and it was clearly a style that was very much in vogue during the seventeenth century – and rightly so as there are few things more elegant. In fact, so enamoured with pearls were the ladies of Henrietta Maria’s circle that they liked to wear them as double drop earrings, as in this portrait of Lady Mary Villiers, Duchess of Richmond by Van Dyke.

When Henrietta Maria fled back to France at the height of the English Civil War, she emptied her jewel caskets and took as many pieces as possible along with her. Her existence in Paris was a far cry from her glory days as Queen of England as she existed on the relatively meagre charity of her sister in law Anne of Austria and nephew, Louis XIV, who were also living in sadly reduced circumstances at the time. Undaunted, the courageous English Queen began to sell off her precious jewels in order to raise funds for the Royalist cause.

The pearl drop earrings, a souvenir of her mother, were among the last to go but were finally sold in 1657 to the teenaged Louis XIV who promptly presented them to Marie Mancini, who he still hoped to marry one day despite the immense disapproval of both his mother and also Marie’s uncle, Cardinal Mazarin. In the end, they had their way and Marie was sent away from court to marry the Prince of Colonna while Louis was married to the Spanish Infanta Maria Teresa.

She took her amazing pearls with her and no doubt wore them often in memory of the boy prince who had once loved her so passionately but apparently with unusual restraint – Marie’s husband is said to have commented after their wedding night that he had, to his surprise, found her to still be a virgin.