Pearls & Power: From Cleopatra to Queen Elizabeth II

Today we consider things like radiant bridal earrings and a pearl necklace to be standard apparel for any blushing bride-to-be, but for most of history pearls were reserved for royalty. The native peoples of the South Seas once believed pearls were tears of the gods, while in ancient India pearls were thought to be daughters of the Moon. A Greek myth held that pearls were a gift from the goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, and a Biblical legend calls them the ‘tears of Eve.’ The only jewel to be created by a living being, natural pearls have always been extremely rare, and they are aptly named the ‘Queen of Gems.’ Read on to learn more about this most regal of jewels.


Julius Caesar was so infatuated with Cleopatra that he invaded Britain to collect enough to make her a special pearl bracelet and other pearl jewelry as he had heard Scotland’s rivers were overflowing with the gems. But the most famous story of Cleopatra and pearls involve another famous Roman, Mark Antony. Cleopatra wagered that she could throw the most opulent dinner party in the world. Always up for a challenge, Antony accepted, and laughed at her — until she dropped one of her pearl earrings into a cup of vinegar. After the priceless gem dissolved, she drank it. Then she pulled off her other earring (believed to be one of the largest pearls in the world) and was going to dissolve it too until another guest stopped her. While this story is likely embellished for dramatic purposes, pearls, being made of calcium carbonate, do dissolve in vinegar. At any rate, Cleopatra won the bet and proved her power.

The first Queen Elizabeth led England during its Golden Age. Leery of marriage due to her father Henry VIII’s penchant for ridding himself of wives, she turned away all suitors. Her refusal to marry earned her the nickname ‘The Virgin Queen.’ Elizabeth I ruled brilliantly, patronizing Shakespeare and ordering the attack on the Spanish Armada. She was always draped in jewels, and long ropes of pearls in particular as they symbolized chastity as well as power.

La Peregrina (‘The Wanderer’) is arguably the most famous pearl in the world. Found off the coast of Panama in the 16th century, the near-perfectly symmetrical pear-shaped pearl was handed over to King Phillip II of Spain who offered it as a bridal gift to Queen Mary I of England. Upon Mary’s death, Queen Elizabeth I returned La Peregrina to Spain. (She might have thought twice about doing that had the Armada debacle happened sooner.) The precious gem remained in Spain until Napoleon seized it in the early 1800s. Passed down through the family, the exiled Napoleon III sold the pearl while living in England to help pay his debts. The one-of-a-kind pearl was sold once again in the 1960s due to financial difficulties, this time to Richard Burton who bought it as a Valentine’s Day gift for his wife and Queen of Hollywood, Elizabeth Taylor. La Peregrina is rumored to have been lost in multiple palaces, including Windsor, Buckingham, and Caesar’s in Las Vegas! (Taylor’s puppy was chewing on it when she rescued it, luckily unscathed.) After Taylor’s death in 2011, La Peregrina sold for a record $11 million. As the buyer was anonymous, it remains to be seen if he or she is connected with royalty, but the pearl will impart regal beauty no matter where it goes.

The late Queen Elizabeth II always sported pearls. For her, they symbolized tradition, uniqueness, and beauty. Queen Elizabeth’s great-great grandmother Queen Victoria began the custom of giving each daughter and granddaughter a pearl for her birthday. By the time the girls reached 18, they had enough for a necklace. Queen Elizabeth II’s father continued the tradition with his two daughters, starting them with a platinum chain and offering a pair of pearls for each birthday. Queen Elizabeth II had an extensive collection with many variations containing up to 6 strands, She wore a two-strand pearl necklace to her father’s coronation, and a different double-strand for her wedding. But her triple strand was her standard for many years.

As Queen Elizabeth II famously said, “There has never been a Queen who didn’t wear pearls. They were rare, beautiful and lustrous, and the more you wear them, the more lustrous they become.” Reason enough for anyone to emulate her style.