Precious Stones


3. La Pelegrina

From time immemorial pearls have competed with diamonds for the first place as objects of beauty. In some countries indeed, notably in Persia, the post of honor has been awarded to them in spite of the brilliant flashes of their more showy rivals.

Pearls differ in one essential respect from other precious gems in that they require no aid to enhance their beauty. They need only to be found, and the less they are handled the more perfect do they appear.

Unlike diamonds, pearls were known to Greeks and Romans, while the area over which they are found comprises a large portion of the globe, extending from China to Mexico and from Scotland to Egypt. A certain pearl of astonishing magnitude formed the chief treasure of ancient Persia, while every one is familiar with the persistent myth of Cleopatra's ear-ring and the cup of vinegar. People for centuries have wondered over the insane extravagance of the draught; but they might have spared their wonder, for no acid which the human stomach can bear is powerful enough to dissolve a pearl.

The various notions relative to the origin of pearls have done credit to the fertility of man's imagination. Some writers have affirmed that they were the product of "ocean dew," whatever that may be, and were accordingly affected by atmospheric conditions. Thus they were large and muddy during the season of the monsoon, becoming clear and lustrous again in hot dry weather, while thunder and lightning had a fatal effect upon them. These ideas were prevalent in the Ceylon fisheries, which at one time were most prolific in their precious crop. Another idea was even still more quaint. According to it, the oyster was looked upon as affecting the habits of the feathered tribe. The pearl was an egg which the oyster laid after the manner of hens.

Modern science, more exact if less imaginative, has decided that the pearl is due to an accident, and an inconvenient accident which frequently befalls the parent oyster. A grain of sand, or some such minute foreign substance, gets within the jealous valves of the mollusk and causes great irritation to the soft body of the pulpy inhabitant. Accordingly it endeavors to render the presence of the intruder less irksome by coating it with exudations from its own body. In other words the grain of sand is "scratchy," so the oyster smooths it over. Why, then, after once coating the objectionable grain of sand and thus making it a comfortable lodger, the oyster should go on for years adding layer after layer of pearl-substance remains is truly a mystery. But such is its habitual practice, and to this apparently aimless perseverance we owe the existence of pearls. Long before America was discovered by Columbus, pearl-fishing had been largely carried on by the inhabitants of the islands in the Gulf. When the Spaniards arrived in the South Sea they were charmed to find the dark-red natives decorated with strings of pearls. Montezuma was at all times bedecked with these glimmering little globules, and in Florida De Soto was shown the tombs of the chiefs profusely ornamented with the same gems. The mortuary shields were in some instances closely studded with thousands upon thousands of pearls; and many stories have come down to us of weary soldiers flinging away bags of these gems which they had in vain tried to exchange for food or water.

Pearls vary very much in size, ranging from the seed-pearl no bigger than a mustard grain, to the Pelegrina as large as a pigeon's egg; and they vary also in shape. The most prized are the round pearls which besides their extreme rarity are supposed to have an especially delicate lustre; the pear-shaped pearl generally retains the greatest size.

The Pelegrina is a pear-shaped pearl weighing one hundred and thirty-four grains, and at the date of its arrival in Europe and for a century afterwards was the largest known pearl. It came across the water in 1559, for the Pelegrina is an American prodigy. In that year, Philip II., King of Spain, was in a very festive mood. He had the year before lost his uncongenial although royal wife, Mary of England, and he was looking out for another bride. His choice fell upon Elizabeth of France, a pretty girl of sixteen who had been betrothed to his son Don Carlos. She arrived in Spain early in the following year, and he expressed his delight at her beauty. He lavished all sorts of presents upon her and amongst others a "jewel salad." In this quaint conceit the rôle of lettuce was played by an enormous emerald, ably seconded by topazes for oil, and rubies for vinegar, while the minor but essential part of salt was assigned to pearls.

Philip, whose one redeeming characteristic was a love for the fine arts, spent a considerable sum upon the purchase of jewels. He acquired a very large diamond just about this time, but the Pelegrina pearl was given to him.

Garcilaso de la Vega, that gossipy historian who incorporated every possible subject and all sorts of anecdotes into his history of the Incas, saw the Pelegrina. Of course so interesting a fact was immediately set forth at length in the Royal Commentaries of Peru, where it belongs at least with as much reason as the account of the writer's drunken fellow-lodger in Madrid.

He says:

"In order more particularly to know the riches of the King of Spain one has but to read the works of Padre Acosta, but I will content myself with relating that which I did myself see in Seville in 1579. It was a pearl which Don Pedro de Temez brought from Panama, and which he did himself present to Philip II. This pearl, by nature pear-shaped, had a long neck and was moreover as large as the largest pigeon's egg. It was valued at fourteen thousand four hundred ducats ($28,800) but Jacoba da Trezzo, a native of Milan, and a most excellent workman and jeweller to his Catholic Majesty, being present when thus it was valued said aloud that it was worth thirty--fifty--a hundred thousand ducats in order to show thereby that it was without parallel in the world. It was consequently called in Spanish La Peregrina which may be translated, I think, into "incomparable."[C] People used to go to Seville to see it as a curiosity.

"At that time there chanced to be in that city an Italian who was buying the finest pearls for a great nobleman in Italy, but the largest gems he had were to it as a grain of sand to a large pebble. In a word, lapidaries and all those who understand the subject of Pearls said in order to express its value that it outweighed by twenty-four carats every other pearl in the world. It was found by a little negro boy, so said his master. The shell was very small and to all appearance there was nothing good inside, not even a hundred reals worth, so that he was on the point of throwing it back into the sea."

[C] The pearl was doubtless "incomparable" as de la Vega says, but at the same time it must not be supposed that such is the correct rendering of the word Peregrina or Pelegrina which means, originally stranger, hence our word "pilgrim."

Fortunately he thought better of it and kept the insignificant shell. The lucky slave was rewarded with his liberty, while his master was given the post of alcalde of Panama, and the king kept the pearl.

The Pelegrina was found off the small island of Santa Margareta, about one hundred miles distant from San Domingo. Pearl-fishing, as then carried on by the natives, was a simple affair, although at the same time rather dangerous. The method was as follows:

The negroes having proceeded in their fragile canoes to the rocky beds inhabited by the oysters, the divers then attached heavy stones to their feet to expedite their sinking. Carrying a basket, a knife, and a sponge dipped in oil, they plunged into the sea holding fast to the rope which was to bring them to the surface again. Their noses and ears were stuffed with wool, but the pressure of the water frequently caused apoplexy, while sharks abounded in the vicinity. However, if the diver escaped both these perils, he proceeded as fast as possible to scrape off the shells with his knife and to put them into his basket. Occasionally he put the sponge to his mouth and sucked a little air from it, while the oil prevented him from swallowing any water. When he could bear it no longer he kicked the stones from off his feet, rattled at the rope, and was hauled up as rapidly as possible. Sometimes the divers remain "a quarter of an hour, yea, even a half" under water, placidly observes the padre in conclusion. Considering that he purports to have been an eye-witness, he should have been more careful of his written statements. From three to five minutes is the limit assigned by more cautious writers, and probably even this is an over estimate, as two minutes is now considered a long time for a good diver to remain under water without a diving bell.

Philip II. appears to have retained the Pelegrina for his own personal adornment and to have worn it as a hat-buckle. It looped up the side of his broad hat or cap according to the Spanish fashion. The black velvet and other sombre hues which he affected could hardly have given to the delicate gem the soft background which its beauty demanded. But if it is true, as has been asserted by poets, that pearls are emblematical of tears, then this great pearl was the most fitting ornament for a king who put his son to death, poisoned his nephew, burnt his subjects and devastated the Netherlands during quarter of a century.

Philip's son and successor, likewise Philip of name, made little use of the Pelegrina; but his wife Margareta wore it on the occasion of a grand ball which was given in Madrid in 1605 to celebrate the conclusion of peace between England and Spain.

James I. was very eager for the alliance of his son with the royal house of Spain. To effect this purpose he sent the Prince of Wales and his favorite Buckingham on a romantic mission to Madrid to make love to the Infanta. This was considered a very remarkable proceeding, and great was the astonishment of all the crowned heads throughout Europe who were in the habit of doing their courting by means of ambassadors, envoys, and other plenipotentiaries.

The Prince of Wales was received with great pomp. Balls, jousts and bull-fights in profusion were ordered for his benefit, and the King, Queen and Infanta loaded their visitor with kind attention. At the same time it must have been rather an irksome visit to all concerned. Charles spoke to the Queen once in French, she being a French princess, whereupon she advised him to do it no more as it was customary to kill any man who spoke to queens of Spain in a foreign tongue!

On the departure of the English prince gifts to a fabulous amount were exchanged amongst the royalties. One pearl in particular was declared by the court chronicler to be so fine that it might "supply the absence of the Pelegrina." The splendid pearl, thus highly rated by the Spanish courtier, was given by Charles to the Cardinal-Infante along with a pectoral of topazes and diamonds.

The Pelegrina appeared at most of the court pageants of Madrid, serving to deck either the kings or the queens during several generations. When, for example, in the summer of 1660, Philip IV. of Spain brought his daughter Maria Theresa to the frontier to be married to the young King of France, Louis XIV., the beautiful pearl appeared on the scene to lend its splendor to the occasion. Mademoiselle de Montpensier, the fantastic lady who was known in her day as la grande Mademoiselle, speaks thus of the Pelegrina and its wearer:

"The King (Philip IV.) had on a gray coat with silver embroidery: a great table diamond fastened up his hat from which hung a pearl. They are two crown jewels of extreme beauty--they call the diamond the Mirror of Portugal, and the pearl the Pelegrina."

On this occasion the two courts of Versailles and Madrid vied with each other in splendor, and their doings have rendered famous the little boundary river of the Bidassoa with its Isle of the Pheasant. A modern traveler whisking past in the train sees but little to recall the once famous spot; a half dried-up river and a marshy reed-covered swamp are all that now remain. The island is gone, so also are the royal houses whose meeting there was so great an event.

There is one occasion upon which the Pelegrina served to deck a bride so young and fair that it deserves more than a passing notice. The bride was Marie Louise d'Orléans, the first wife of Charles II. This poor sickly King, the last descendant of the mighty Charles V., was a very shy boy and extremely averse to the society of women. When he was about seventeen his mother and the royal council decided that he must be married, and they cast their eyes upon the neighboring house of France, into which Spanish monarchs were in the habit of marrying when not engaged with it in war. The only suitable lady was "Mademoiselle"--for such was in ancient France the distinctive title of the eldest niece of the King. Mademoiselle, besides being niece to Louis XIV., was furthermore pretty, vivacious, and only sixteen. Her portrait was sent to Spain, and what was the amazement of the court to see the shy young king, who could scarcely look a woman in the face, fall violently in love with this portrait. He kept it always beside him and was observed frequently to address the tenderest expressions to it.

Such being the satisfactory state of the King's feelings the match was rapidly concluded, and Marie Louise set out from Versailles to go to her unknown husband. On his side Charles II. went forward to meet her as far as Burgos, and there they first saw each other in 1679. When the King was unexpectedly announced, Mademoiselle was observed to blush and look agitated which made her all the prettier. As Charles entered her apartment she advanced in order to kneel at his feet, but the Boy-King caught her by both arms and gazing at her with delight cried, "My Queen, my Queen!"

Although she arrived in Madrid in the autumn of 1679, the young Queen did not make her state-entry into her capital until the following January. In the meantime she was kept in the closest seclusion. Not all the power of the King of Spain joined to the love which Charles bore to his wife was sufficient to break down the adamantine wall of etiquette which long usage had built around the queens of Spain. Like a Moorish slave in a harem, the gay young French girl was shut up alone with her Lady of the Bedchamber and was permitted to see no one except the King. She was not allowed to write to her own family nor receive their letters. She was even refused permission to read a letter from Paris which a compassionate friend sent her in order that she might hear a little news. She was a prisoner indeed, although the prison was gilded. It needed something to atone for two months of such a life, and if a grand display could sweep away the recollection of it that consolation was not withheld.

On January 13, 1680, the Bride-Queen at last entered Madrid. Madame la Mothe, whose keen French eyes saw everything and whose sharp French pen chronicled it, has left a minute account of the ceremony. She says:

"The Queen rode upon a curious Andalusian horse which the Marquis de Villa Magna, her first gentleman-usher, led by the rein. Her clothes were so richly embroidered that one could see no stuff; she wore a hat trimmed with a plume of feathers and the pearl called the Pelegrina which is as big as a small pear and of inestimable value, her hair hung loose upon her shoulders, and upon her forehead. Her neck was a little bare and she wore a small farthingale; she had upon her finger the large diamond of the king's, which is pretended to be the finest in Europe. But the Queen's pretty looks showed brighter than all her sparkling jewels."

There is a picture still extant of this queen which proves her to have been pretty in spite of the disfigurement effected by some of her sparkling jewels. Madame la Mothe does not mention what the picture shows, namely, that the Queen's ears were weighted down by a pair of ornaments as large as saucers which the Queen-mother had presented to her. Above the ear-rings moreover were a pair of huge jewelled rosettes fastened to the hair in such a way as to make one almost fancy that the ears were being dragged out by their enormous pendants and had to be nailed up by the rosettes.

Marie Louise lived but a few years to enjoy the love of her husband and the splendor of her rank. It was said that she died of a broken heart caused by the torments of court jealousies and intrigues against which the King, her husband, in vain tried to shield her.

Charles II. died in 1705, and being childless he bequeathed his crown to Philip of Anjou, grandson of Louis XIV. and cousin to the wife of his youth whose memory was still dear to him. Of course other claimants arose to grasp so splendid an inheritance, so that the funeral torches of Charles may be said to have set fire to Europe. At all events, a vast conflagration soon burst forth known as the War of the Spanish Succession, which included ere long within its fiery embrace Spain, France, England. Austria, Italy, Germany and Holland. After all their fighting however Philip still remained King of Spain, and the house which he founded is now, in the person of the Baby-King of Spain, the last reigning example of that mighty tribe of Bourbons which at one time ruled over so large a portion of Europe.

During the first years of his reign Philip V. had to fight for his throne, nor was he invariably successful. At one time he was so hard-pressed by his rival, the Archduke Charles, that he had almost to seek rufuge in France. By the urgent entreaty of his ministers the King and Queen did not actually quit the soil of Spain, but the Pelegrina did do so. The invaluable pearl, along with the rest of the crown jewels, was entrusted to a French valet named Susa, who crossed over the frontier into France, kept his treasures safe until the danger was passed, and then when the tide of success began to flow for Philip brought them back again to Madrid.

This is the last authentic appearance of the Pelegrina in Spanish history. After this date, 1707, its story becomes confused and oftentimes contradictory. It is alleged to have been given first to one favorite and then to another, while finally as a climax of confusion another pearl in Spain, one in Sardinia, and one in Moscow, impudently assume its name and masquerade as the true and veritable Pelegrina.

Our own inquiries both in Madrid and St. Petersburg have failed to supply the links that are missing in its history. We cannot say when it finally passed away from the crown of Spain, for there have been many clearances of the royal jewels to meet the exigencies of various kings. At all events, for the last thirty years it has been in the hands of a Russian family. The Oussoupoffs belong to the ancient nobility and they are extremely wealthy; but how and when the Princess Oussoupoff became possessed of the Pelegrina we do not pretend to say. The friend who made the inquiries for us said significantly that it was impossible to ask many questions in Russia. Questions, however innocent, are looked upon with great suspicion and any questioner is liable to repent of his inquisitiveness. It is a pity that so historic a gem as the Pelegrina should be practically lost to us in a Russian lady's jewel casket. Any other large pearl would have served her purpose equally well for mere ornament, and had the Pelegrina remained in Western Europe we should probably know something more about it or at all events we should be able to ask what questions we like without incurring the suspicion of treason and of being desirous of hurling the Romanoffs from their throne.