Diamonds and Pearls

Facts and fantasies about the most sought-after stone

Caligula, not satisfied with building ships of cedar with sterns inlaid with gems, had a pearl-collar made for a favorite horse! Pliny grows indignant as he chronicles the luxury of this Emperor.

“I have seen,” says he, “Lollia Paulina, who was the wife of the Emperor Caligula,—and this not on the occasion of a solemn festival or ceremony, but merely at a supper of ordinary betrothals, —I have seen Lollia Paulina covered with emeralds and pearls, arranged alternately, so as to give each other additional brilliancy, on her head, neck, arms, hands, and girdle, to the amount of forty thousand sesterces, [£336,000 sterling,] the which value she was prepared to prove on the instant by producing the receipts. And these pearls came, not from the prodigal generosity of an imperial husband, but from treasures which had been the spoils of provinces. Marcus Lollius, her grandfather, was dishonored in all the East on account of the gifts he had extorted from kings, disgraced by Tiberius, and obliged to poison himself, that his grand-daughter might exhibit herself by the light of the lucernae blazing with jewels.”

Nero offered to Jupiter Capitolinus the first trimmings of his beard in a magnificent vase enriched with the costliest pearls.

Catherine de Medicis and Diane de Poitiers almost floated in pearls, their dresses being literally covered with them. The wedding-robe of Anne of Cleves was a rich cloth-of-gold, thickly embroidered with great flowers of large Orient pearls. Poor Mary, Queen of Scots, had a wonderful lot of pearls among her jewels; and the sneaking manner in which Elizabeth got possession of them we will leave Miss Strickland, the biographer of Queens, to relate.

“If anything farther than the letters of Drury and Throgmorton be required to prove the confederacy between the English Government and the Earl of Moray, it will only be necessary to expose the disgraceful fact of the traffic of Queen Mary's costly parure of pearls, her own personal property, which she had brought with her from France. A few days before she effected her escape from Lochleven Castle, the righteous Regent sent these, with a choice collection of her jewels, very secretly to London, by his trusty agent, Sir Nicholas Elphinstone, who undertook to negotiate their sale, with the assistance of Throgmorton, to whom he was directed for that purpose. As these pearls were considered the most magnificent in Europe, Queen Elizabeth was complimented with the first offer of them. 'She saw them yesterday, May 2nd,' writes Bodutel La Forrest, the French ambassador at the Court of England, 'in the presence of the Earls of Pembroke and Leicester, and pronounced them to be of unparalleled beauty.' He thus describes them: 'There are six cordons of large pearls, strung as paternosters; but there are five-and-twenty separate from the rest, much finer and larger than those which are strung; these are for the most part like black muscades. They had not been here more than three days, when they were appraised by various merchants; this Queen wishing to have them at the sum named by the jeweller, who could have made his profit by selling them again. They were at first shown to three or four working jewellers and lapidaries, by whom they were estimated at three thousand pounds sterling, (about ten thousand crowns,) and who offered to give that sum for them. Several Italian merchants came after them, who valued them at twelve thousand crowns, which is the price, as I am told, this Queen Elizabeth will take them at. There is a Genoese who saw them after the others, and said they were worth sixteen thousand crowns; but I think they will allow her to have them for twelve thousand.' 'In the mean time,' continues he, in his letter to Catherine of Medicis, 'I have not delayed giving your Majesty timely notice of what was going on, though I doubt she will not allow them to escape her. The rest of the jewels are not near so valuable as the pearls. The only thing I have heard particularly described is a piece of unicorn richly carved and decorated.' Mary's royal mother-in-law of France, no whit more scrupulous than her good cousin of England, was eager to compete with the latter for the purchase of the pearls, knowing that they were worth nearly double the sum at which they had been valued in London. Some of them she had herself presented to Mary, and especially wished to recover; but the ambassador wrote to her in reply, that 'he had found it impossible to accomplish her desire of obtaining the Queen of Scots' pearls, for, as he had told her from the first, they were intended for the gratification of the Queen of England, who had been allowed to purchase them at her own price, and they were now in her hands.'

“Inadequate though the sum for which her pearls were sold was to their real value, it assisted to turn the scale against their real owner.

“In one of her letters to Elizabeth, supplicating her to procure some amelioration of the rigorous confinement of her captive friends, Mary alludes to her stolen jewels:—'I beg also,' says she, 'that you will prohibit the sale of the rest of my jewels, which the rebels have ordered in their Parliament, for you have promised that nothing should be done in it to my prejudice. I should be very glad, if they were in safer custody, for they are not meat proper for traitors. Between you and me it would make little difference, and I should be rejoiced, if any of them happened to be to your taste, that you would accept them from me as offerings of my good-will.'

“From this frank offer it is apparent that Mary was not aware of the base part Elizabeth had acted, in purchasing her magnificent parure of pearls of Moray, for a third part of their value.”

One of the most famous pearls yet discovered (there may be shells down below that hide a finer specimen) is the beautiful Peregrina. It was fished up by a little negro boy in 1560, who obtained his liberty by opening an oyster. The modest bivalve was so small that the boy in disgust was about to pitch it back into the sea. But he thought better of his rash determination, pulled the shells asunder, and, lo, the rarest of priceless pearls! [Moral. Don't despise little oysters.] La Peregrina is shaped like a pear, and is of the size of a pigeon's egg. It was presented to Philip II. by the finder's master, and is still in Spain. No sum has ever determined its value. The King's jeweller named five hundred thousand dollars, but that paltry amount was scouted as ridiculously small.

There is a Rabbinical story which aptly shows the high estimate of pearls in early ages, only one object in Nature being held worthy to be placed above them:—

“On approaching Egypt, Abraham locked Sarah in a chest, that none might behold her dangerous beauty. But when he was come to the place of paying custom, the collectors said, 'Pay us the custom': and he said, 'I will pay the custom.' They said to him, 'Thou carriest clothes': and he said, 'I will pay for clothes.' Then they said to him, 'Thou carriest gold': and he answered them, 'I will pay for my gold.' On this they further said to him, 'Surely thou bearest the finest silk': he replied, 'I will pay custom for the finest silk.' Then said they, 'Surely it must be pearls that thou takest with thee': and he only answered, 'I will pay for pearls.' Seeing that they could name nothing of value for which the patriarch was not willing to pay custom, they said, 'It cannot be but thou open the box, and let us see what is within.' So they opened the box, and the whole land of Egypt was illumined by the lustre of Sarah's beauty,—far exceeding even that of pearls.”

Shakspeare, who loved all things beautiful, and embalmed them so that their lustre could lose nothing at his hands, was never tired of introducing the diamond and the pearl. They were his favorite ornaments; and we intended to point out some of the splendid passages in which he has used them. But we have room now for only one of those priceless sentences in which he has set the diamond and the pearl as they were never set before. No kingly diadem can boast such jewels as glow along these lines from “Lear”:—

“You have seen
Sunshine and rain at one: her smiles and tears
Were like a better day: Those happy smiles
That played on her ripe lip seemed not to know
What guests were in her eyes; which parted thence,
 As pearls from diamonds dropp'd.”
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