The Healer of Pearls: 1902,1912

tortola valencia

Carmen Tortola Valencia, the Healer of Pearls

Let us begin with a fabulous story about the late Empress Elisabeth of Austria and her refuge at Corfu.

On the coast of Corfu a story is told which will perhaps someday pass into folklore, for it is of the stuff of which legends are made. Whether it is true or not no one can say, but the fishermen of Corfu believe it and dream of it.

When the Empress of Austria received the news of her son Rudolf’s death, she was wearing a famous necklace of Oriental pearls. That night, so the stories goes, the attendant whose duty it was to care for her jewels, was horrified to see that the superb pearls had lost their luster and looked dull and dead. She spoke of the matter to her mistress, who in her sorrow did not even listen.

A month or two later the Empress had occasion to call for her pearls; and, on opening the case, found every pearl of the necklace a lusterless gray.

She called the court jewelers into consultation, but nothing could be done to restore the pearls to their former beauty.

Finally a famous chemist of Vienna assured the Empress that if the pearls could be left in the sea for a long time the action of the salt water would bring back their color and lustre. The Empress went to Corfu later.

While there she went with Father Ambrosius, an old monk, who was her friend and confidant, to a wild spot on the shore of the island, and there they hid the pearls securely in a fissure under the surface of the water and left them. There the pearls were when the Empress met her sudden and tragic death.

Father Ambrosius fell dead in the cloister when told of the death of his mistress. The pearls, so the storytellers say, await a lucky finder, somewhere along the rugged coast, and are likely to be the Capt. Kidd’s treasure of Corfu.

Taking the story for what it is worth, the fact remains that there are on record many curious instances in which pearls apparently sympathized with the health and mood of their wearers. Pearls, too often lose their color and lustre for no perceptible reason, and in many cases never regain their beauty.

All through the Orient there are jewelers famous as doctors of sick pearls, and to certain of these doctors pearls of great value are frequently sent by the native rulers and merchants. The salt water treatment is one of the most common methods of dealing with a sick pearl; so if Elizabeth’s necklace is by any chance where Corfu gossip locates it, its pearls may be finding healing while they await discovery.

The Times [Richmond, VA] 26 January 1902: p. 15 

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The always-restless Empress Elisabeth, attempting to flee from her grief over her son Rudolf’s death, built a palace on Corfu, called the Achilleion. The Empress had many beautiful jewels, but there is no telling if this is a true story or not, although the sea-water cure actually was prescribed for “healing” pearls. There were also other remedies for the sick jewels. The exotic-looking lady in the photo-gravure at the head of this post was Carmen Tórtola Valencia. The caption reads: 

This is Tortola Valencia, who has the peculiar gift of being able to cure “sick” pearls by wearing them. After reposing a few weeks on Tortola’s bosom, pearls which have lost their luster are said to recover their original brilliance.

Tortola is a Spanish dancer just now the rage in Paris. Her strange effect on pearls resulted in a commission from the czar of Russia, who has sent her a magnificent pearl necklace to wear and “cure.” It was originally made for Catherine the Great of Russia.

While Tortola wears it she is guarded day and night by detectives employed by the French and Russian governments. The Day Book [Chicago, IL] 28 March 1912: p. 34 

Carmen Tórtola Valencia [1882-1955] was a Spanish dancer, choreographer and artist who was inspired by Isadora Duncan’s avant-garde work.  She specialized in Spanish and Oriental pieces, as well as pieces inspired by native cultures of India, Africa, and the Middle East, which she studied most assiduously. She was often photographed in her striking costumes, which she designed herself.

Although some articles say that Tórtola Valencia gave up the stage to become a nursemaid for the pearls of the mighty, in fact she last danced in 1930. She was an early Spanish proponent of women’s rights, took lovers wherever she chose, and was misunderstood by some critics as simply a scantily-clad Mata-Hari-type and “the reincarnation of Salome.” It is a pity that journalists focused almost exclusively on the lady’s pearl-healing bosom, rather than her very considerable artistic talents.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

For several other anecdotes of pearls see here and here.

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