Pearls in Panama Part II

The most recent owner of the La Peregrina Pearl, discovered in the early 1500s in the waters of the Las Perlas Archipelago, was Elizabeth Taylor, received it as a 37th birthday present after her husband, Richard Burton, bid $37,000 at a Sotheby’s auction in 1969.

The incredible history of La Peregrina is dramatised by its disappearance on several occasions. Whilst in the ownership of the Duchess of Abercorn, it got lost in a sofa in Windsor Castle and, on a second occasion, during a ball at Buckingham Palace. Elizabeth Taylor writes of a classic episode in her suite at Cesar’s Palace, Las Vegas:

“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!’”

After noticing one of her puppies apparently chewing on a bone, Taylor 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.”

In the centuries that followed the discovery of La Peregrina, Pearl Island was replete with adventurers, pirates and plunderers who came in search of the prized treasure. The archipelago was a well known pirate haven, the back bays and hidden coves lending themselves perfectly to launching attacks on passing ships.

The intense appetite for these pearls resulted in the depletion of virtually all the Central American pearl oyster populations by the late 17th century and the price of these precious gems consequently soared. By 1916 they were so scarce that the renowned French jeweller Jacques Cartier famously acquired his landmark store on New York’s famous Fifth Avenue in exchange for two pearl necklaces.

Times were changing, however. In 1905, after 12 years of painstaking work, Japanese-born Kokichi Mikimoto finally produced his first totally round cultivated pearl. As the Western appetite for cultured pearls grew, a whole new industry was born, lured by the affordability of these gems which could scarcely be differentiated from the original. The discovery was a catastrophe for the natural pearl industry of Panama, which gradually fell into decline over the next few decades.

The developers of Pearl Island will be re-establishing this part of the island’s history for the enjoyment of future generations. Natural oyster pearl cultivation farms are planned for the island’s shores and both natural pearls and mother of pearl will once again be produced in this tropical paradise.

Rick Steger, marine biologist at Pearl Island, will be giving us more precise details of the pearl farming project on the island in an interview soon to follow on these pages.

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