Gem of an actress had a passion for jewelry

Elizabeth Taylor wears the Peregrina pearl

Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn, the two greatest film star-humanitarians in Hollywood history, were deep believers in each other's causes (AIDS and UNICEF) and hugely fond of one another -- while not sharing quite the same taste or passion for jewels. At a famous Oscar party, after their very warm embrace, the prim, unostentatious Ms. Hepburn pointed to the extraordinary gem adorning Ms. Taylor's extraordinary bosom and inquired, "Kenny Lane?"

"No," said Ms. Taylor, "Richard Burton!" And both beauties screamed with laughter. It was "La Peregrina" (The Wanderer) -- the largest and most perfectly pear-shaped pearl in the world, weighing 211 grains, found by a conquistador off the coast of Panama, given to King Phillip II of Spain in 1554, and worn by every subsequent queen of Spain (including the Bonaparte usurpers).

It was my great thrill, thanks to the late Roddy McDowall, to meet Queen Elizabeth -- of the Taylor line -- and talk with her at length in 1992 for an "Art & Antiques" cover story about Hollywood screen gems.

Burton, who died in 1984, bought it for her 37th birthday in 1969. But a day or so later "it vanished, much to my despair," she told me. "After searching frantically, I finally discovered it in the mouth of my Pekinese."

Ms. Taylor would wear it as Desiree in "A Little Night Music" (1978) during her torchy rendition of "Send in the Clowns." It rested -- no, it positively nestled in her legendary cleavage, as if born (and certainly cultured) there.

Among many other world-class gems Burton lavished on her was the Krupp diamond (whose insurance contract stipulated that she be accompanied by two detectives whenever and wherever she wore it).

Wretched excess? Converted to philanthropy. Virtually all of Ms. Taylor's pre-and post-Burton jewels were purchased and/or later sold through auctions benefiting the American Foundation for AIDS Research, of which Ms. Taylor was the founding national chairman and indefatigable public consciousness-raiser for the rest of her life.

My one great "hard news" coup from our interview? I got her to verify a longtime unconfirmed rumor: "Yeah," she chuckled seductively, "the Krupp was my prize for beating Richard at pingpong."

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