Scandals and Pride | Infamous Pearls in History

Known since ancient times, the pearl was sought by wealthy emperors, skilled jewelers, and eager divers.  Due to its extreme rarity before the development of cultures, the pearl was one of the most expensive gemstones in history. More often than not, size determines what the rarest pearl in the world is. Pearls like the Pearl of Lao Tzu and Pearl of Puerto are among the largest in the world. And mother of pearl are there some stories here! Pearls are counted as natural or organic gemstones, along with coral, amber, jet, etc.

While rarity was once a major barrier to buying pearls, cultured pearls have since dominated the market. Today, pearls can be bought for a fraction of what they cost in the past. Natural pearls are still quite rare and expensive. Their rarity has made some pearls famous even after the discovery of culturing as is the case of the first pearl on our list. 

The Pearl of Lao Tzu

Rivaling the Bahia Emerald in a story about conspiracies, the Pearl of Lao Tzu (also known as the Pearl of Allah) has an odd history. It allegedly all begins in 1934 when a single diver, Etem, was in the Philippines drowned trying to pry the pearl out of the mouth of a giant clam. He was trapped in the clam and it took another person to obtain both the body and the pearl. The clam was opened and inside its maw was the world’s largest pearl at the time, weighing in at 14 pounds. The local chief, a devout Muslim by the name of Panglima Pisi, dubbed it the Pearl of Allah because of its supposed resemblance to the turbaned head of Muhammad. Wilburn Dowell Cobb visited the island and tried to buy the colossal pearl, but the chief wouldn’t budge. Cobb treated the chief’s son, who was struck by malaria, and the chief then gave him the pearl.

Cobb brought the pearl to Ripley’s Believe it or Not exhibit. Cobb was visited by a man named Mr. Lee. He claimed that it was the long lost Pearl of Lao Tzu. According to legend, Lao Tzu made an amulet that depicted the faces of the Buddha, Confucius, and himself. He placed it in a clam to artificially create a pearl. The pearl grew in size and it had to change clams to house it numerous times. Mr. Lee offered to buy the pearl at $500,000, although it was worth $3.5 million. Cobb refused and Mr. Lee was never seen or heard of again. The initial $3.5 million estimate grew over time to over $75 million. The Mr. Lee story only appeared at the end of Cobb’s life when he seemed willing to part with the pearl. It’s possible he embellished he tale of the pearl a little more to make a sale. He never did sell it, however, and many potential buyers were turned down.

Bowl of Mother of Pearl Chips

Cobb died in 1979 and his daughter Ruth inherited the pearl. She got it appraised by the IRS who settled on $200,000. She sold it to a man named Victor Barbish, often shortened to Vic Barbish. Barbish was a far more egregious liar than Cobb.

Cobb’s story was largely true, just bits and pieces of it were fabricated. In fact, only the Mr. Lee story was entirely fictitious. A diver did die going for the pearl, there was a Muslim chief, and it was found in the Philippines. The chief did not name the pearl, however, Cobb did.

Barbish went out of his way to “elaborate” on the legend told by Mr. Lee. The large pearl supposedly sank into the ocean while it was ferried by a trading ship. Furthermore, Barbish explained that he learned about the additional details from the Lee family. The Lee family wanted to buy the pearl but misfortune struck Barbish. One of Barbish’s partners, Lewis Maxwell, an ex-CIA agent, was going to make the sale had he not died during surgery. Just as Mr. Lee disappeared after Cobb, the Lee family was never mentioned again after Barbish.

Barbish’s past is riddled with lies and lawbreaking. For example, in the early 1970s Barbish’s business was raided by the police to stop illegal bingo gaming. California, his place of business, passed an anti-lottery law and Barbish openly denounced the law. He defiantly kept his bingo parlor open to the ire of the police. Barbish was thousands of dollars every few weeks with his illegal bingo parlor.

His reputation was tarnished by rumors that claimed he was affiliated with the mafia. He denied this rumor, but people found it hard to believe him. He tried to defend both his business and reputation in court. It seemed like he would avoid a sentence on a technicality. The judge claimed that it may not be possible to sentence Barbish because he technically didn’t violate the anti-lottery law. Barbish was accused of “operating” a lottery, but “operating” lotteries was not illegal. To “contrive, prepare, set up, propose, or draw” a lottery, however, was illegal. The other nine defendants were charged in the fall of 1974. However, he was later convicted and sentenced to 30 days in jail with a $625 fine.

Image of Hanging Pearl Earrings

Barbish procured the giant pearl in the 1980s and tried to sell it. Or, he would have tried if it wasn’t actually a con of his. Barbish flaunted the pearl to investors and drummed up hype with wild unsubstantiated claims that (in)famous people were trying to buy it. For example, he claimed that Osama bin Laden, Whoopi Goldberg, and Ferdinand Marcos were all interested buyers. Joseph Bonicelli, a bar owner, bought a stake in the pearl.

Bonicelli, like Barbish, was a mobster-like figure. He owned a bar and sold a race track he built to buy the pearl. Bonicelli was also accused of having ties to dark individuals.

The only other person who has any stake in the pearl is Peter Hoffman. Unlike most individuals involved in this story, Peter Hoffman is not a gangster. However, just like Cobb and Barbish, he believed the story of the pearl. Hoffman claimed that the pearl was from Lao Tzu and that it had “spiritual powers.” Hoffman is the only living original bidder for the pearl. All other claims to the pearl remain in the estates of Barbish and Bonicelli.

Today, the pearl remains in legal limbo. 

The Pearl of Servilia, Caesar’s Mistress

Caesar wasn’t a faithful man, but he was wealthy. The patrician’s son started an affair with Servilia early in his life, about 59 B.C. He bought his mistress a pearl that was worth about 1.5 million denarii. To put the worth of the pearl in context, Ptolemy XII’s bribe to the Roman consulship to become recognized as the ruler of Egypt was worth about 36 million denarii. It is possible that Caesar used a slice of that bribe to pay for the pearl. Caesar was said to be madly in love with Servilia, but marriage was not plausible as Cato would need to authorize both Servilia’s divorce and Caesar’s marriage. The affair was notorious and the pearl may be the first instance when his peers would become aware of it. Even if it wasn’t too bothersome for other political elites, it was disastrous for Cato.

Image of Pearl Ring with Emeralds

Its enormous cost may reflect one of two thingss: that it was the rarest pearl in the world at the time or that Caesar really loved Servilia. While some of claimed that it was a black pearl, this cannot be said with certainty. The white color of the pearl was paramount to its appeal. 

The Hope Pearl

Henry Philip Hope is the namesake of two prestigious gemstones: the Hope Pearl and the Hope Diamond. He dealt in jewelry and gemstones and acquired some pricy artifacts in his lifetime. The Hope Pearl is large, about three ounces in weight. Its shape, however, is irregular. Unlike most pearls which are strung together to make a necklace, the Hope Pearl is the piece of a pendant on a necklace. The pendant has a crown shape adorned with various gemstones including diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. At the time, it was the largest known pearl in the world. Although the Hope Pearl (and other polished crystals Hope had in his collection) was not as prestigious as his diamond, it deserves a place on any list of famous minerals. It is still one mother of a pearl!

La Peregrina

What do old European queens and Elizabeth Taylor have in common? They both wore la peregrina. It is often called, “the incomparable,” though that is not necessarily an accurate translation. Despite this inaccuracy, it truly is an incomparable pearl. It has a near perfect pear shape, impeccable luster, and phenomenal color. It was first discovered in 1513 by a slave in Panama. The slave was given freedom and the pearl was given to Philip II who proceeded to give it to Mary Tudor. When Mary died, the pearl was handed back to the Spanish. Spanish monarchs continued to wear it up until the Napoleonic Wars. It was taken by Joseph Bonaparte during the Peninsular War in 1813. It exchanged French hands until settling with the Duke of Abercorn’s wife. It ended up with famous actress Elizabeth Taylor until her death. It, along with the rest of her jewelry and natural crystals, were sold in an auction for a grand sum of $116 million. Many of the polished crystals and gemstones set in gold and silver jewelry fetched for large sums on their own, sometimes several times what they were really worth. For example, Taylor’s diamond and sapphire ring, a gift from Michael Jackson, sold for $600,000. The Taj Mahal diamond sold for $8.8 million. Her diamond crystal engagement rings also sold, Notably, the Krupp Diamond set in one of the rings also sold for over $8 million.

La Pelegrina

No, that isn’t a typo. La Pelegrina is separate from the other pearl, La Peregrina. To make matters worse, both are famous pear-shaped pearls with great luster and color. Both have seen a fair change of hands throughout history, particularly with nobility. While they aren't exactly the same, you can probably see why these shiny pearls have similar names.

The Wrap Up

As you can see, pearls have a rich and varied history. Money can corrupt, however, and some of the people who get involved with high value pearls will do anything to get them.

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Ortega v. Leiba

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