Over the centuries, revolution and conquest have moved more merchandise than the enterprises of Cartier, Harry Winston, and Van Cleef & Arpels combined. The history of rare gems is often a protracted tale of bloodshed, culminating with the prize in question being swallowed, concealed behind a secret panel, or sewn into a corset in preparation for a predawn flight down cobbled alleys where nondescript carriages await. It was against such a tableau of intrigue that Marie-Antoinette (after ensuring the end of her husband’s regime by persuading him not to negotiate with the revolutionary National Assembly) sent her famous 35-carat pear-shaped diamond earrings on their path to the Smithsonian—and the rather ovine head they ornamented on the path to the guillotine basket.
While this grand style of misadventure is typically the province of diamonds, fate occasionally disfavors the owners of less obvious stones. Such a jewel belonged to the woman whose lobes were later adorned by Marie-Antoinette’s famous earrings, Princess Zenaïde Youssoupov of Russia. Descended from Khan Youssouv, the ruler of the Crimean peninsula in the time of Ivan the Terrible, the Youssoupovs’ wealth at the close of the 19th century easily exceeded that of the czars themselves. Their dozens of palaces (seven in St. Petersburg alone) brimmed with works by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and Tiepolo, as well as decorative crystal bowls filled with uncut rubies, sapphires, and emeralds. The family’s penchant for jewels, however, found its fullest expression in a collection of historic pieces that included the 41-carat Polar Star diamond, the Sultan of Morocco (weighing 36 carats), and a 111-grain silver pearl known as La Pelegrina (“The Incomparable”), which Zenaïde wore to Queen Victoria’s coronation.
La Pelegrina was found by a slave in Panama in the 17th century and given by Philip IV of Spain to his daughter, Marie-Thérèse, upon her marriage to Louis XIV. La Pelegrina vanished in 1792, after the collapse of the Bourbon monarchy, materializing in 1826 Moscow, where it was purchased by Princess Tatiana Youssoupov, Zenaïde’s great-grandmother. The stone disappeared once again on the eve of the Russian Revolution. Zenaïde’s son, Prince Felix Youssoupov (the man who murdered Grigory Rasputin), smuggled numerous jewels from Russia when he made his escape: Expatriates in Paris, Felix and his wife, Irina, languished lavishly on the proceeds from Catherine the Great’s black pearl necklace, the Polar Star, the Sultan of Morocco, and the fabled earrings of France’s ill-fated queen—all of which were snapped up by clients of Pierre Cartier. Some accounts suggest that, in 1953, La Pele-grina was similarly liquidated, while others maintain that the pearl was sealed up with hundreds of other jewels in secret rooms throughout the Youssoupovs’ labyrinthine Moika Palace. These caches remained hidden until 1925, when the Soviets undertook a renovation of the neoclas-sical residence: From a secret room beneath the grand staircase, workers retrieved more than 250 diamond brooches, scores of bracelets, and more than a dozen tiaras. La Pelegrina was not mentioned as part of this trove and did not resurface until 1987, when Christie’s sold it at auction in Geneva for $464,000.
More certain and more celebrated is the career of another remarkable pearl, one frequently confused with the Youssoupov jewel: La Peregrina, or “The Wanderer.” Like Princess Zenaïde’s treasure, this 204-grain stone was discovered in Panama—but 100 years earlier; and like La Pelegrina, it was gifted to a bride named Mary by a Spanish king named Philip. Wedded to Philip II in 1554, Mary Tudor wore the pearl until her death four years later, at which time it was returned to Spain. After Napoléon Bonaparte’s conquest of that country and the ascent of his brother, Joseph, to the Spanish throne, the pearl became the property of Joseph’s nephew, Louis-Napoléon, who, during his English exile, sold it to the Duke of Abercorn. The Wanderer is aptly named, as it often fell from its setting due to its weight—once to be found tucked into a sofa cushion and, on a later occasion at Buckingham Palace, caught in a lady’s train.
The pearl has wandered from its current owner, as well—not, however, at Buckingham Palace, but at Caesars. Purchased for her by Richard Burton in 1969, the pearl nearly slipped from Elizabeth Taylor’s clutches in their Las Vegas suite. The actress later recounted how, anxious to conceal the disappearance from her husband, she sauntered around the living room feeling for the gem in the carpet with her toes, when she noticed one of the couple’s puppies chewing vigorously. Prying open the enthusiastic puppy’s mouth, she found “the most perfect pearl in the world” nestled, undamaged, on the animal’s tongue. Fortunately, the actress—unlike Louis XVI’s consort—had kept her head.