A Sparkling History

February 1, 2013  |  Phyllis Schiller

First Lady Michelle Obama wore         

Kimberly McDonald diamond jewelry          

at the 2013 Inaugural Ball.         

On January 20, 2013, Barack Obama was sworn in for his second term as the President of the United States. Standing by his side, sharing the spotlight, was his wife, First Lady Michelle Obama. As the First Lady, Michelle Obama helps set
the tone for the administration, with her words and deeds…and her wardrobe. It’s a tradition that’s firmly rooted in America’s political past.

   Since George Washington took the
first oath of office, what his wife Martha and subsequent First Ladies wore was subject to public interest and scrutiny.
What the First Ladies chose as their personal adornment tells a very intimate tale of their lives and times. It’s a story
that Elyse Zorn Karlin, co-director of
the Association for the Study of Jewelry & Related Arts (ASJRA) and publisher/ executive editor of Adornment magazine, has devoted many, many hours of research to tell.

   “It’s a fascinating subject,” says Karlin, who has spent more than ten years investigating the First Ladies for a planned book with co-writer Yvonne Markowitz, the Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan curator of jewelry at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “It’s fascinating because the jewelry they wore tells a lot of our history.” It isn’t easy research. “It’s following little threads. We might have to read ten books to find out about one piece and then we try to find it.” But more than just researching the jewelry, Karlin says, “We do a lot of reading about the First Lady so we understand who she was.”
   One problem in finding pieces is that often the jewelry remained in the family, and
like any inherited pieces, might get split up among various relatives, or remodeled or destroyed. Some pieces that get handed down and attributed to a First Lady might really have belonged to her daughter, niece or cousin. Family members who do have pieces with proven provenance tend to hold on to them and not speak of it. In addition, there are lots of historical museums and small hometown sites that may have some jewelry but might
not have the staff or funds to publicize it.

Making a Stylish Statement
   While the jewelry First Ladies chose to wear reflects both their personality and what
was in style at the time, there are, says Karlin, some common elements. “First Ladies had to be very careful, starting with Martha Washington, to walk a fine line between looking fashionable and representing our country in style when entertaining heads of state and not trying to look like royalty.” Lockets and some kind of diamond jewelry were probably common to all, but in the early years of our nation, big gemstones, says Karlin, sent the “wrong” message. Pearls, however, were the perfect choice, and while much is made of Barbara Bush and her pearls, most of the First Ladies had pearl jewelry.

   “Portrait miniatures were popular with the earlier First Ladies,” notes Karlin, citing two lovely bracelets with miniatures of Martha Washington’s children. Abigail Adams also had jewelry with portraits of her children.
   Martha Washington had a lot of faux pieces, points out Karlin. “That’s what women were wearing then. They ordered most of their jewelry from England, because not a lot was being made in this country during Washington’s period. But they didn’t like doing that. Abigail Adams didn’t wear a lot of jewelry and was very down to earth and very American, but even she, when she went to France, bought a watch and a few other
pieces there.”

   Dolley Madison’s choice of jewelry is another interesting story, says Karlin. “A lot of books say that she was raised as a Quaker and not allowed to wear jewelry but she loved finery. Her grandmother, who was not a Quaker, gave her some little trinkets and the story is she kept them in a bag under her blouse so no one knew she had them. When she married James Madison, she left the Quaker Church, and we know she wore low-cut Empire-style dresses and big headdresses with jewels. Unlike other women of the time, she emulated what was going on in Europe and had no fear of looking too European.”
   Wars and politics also were factors in what First Ladies did, and wore. Mary Todd Lincoln, explains Karlin, was criticized for dressing nicely when soldiers were dying.
“She did help in the war effort, folding bandages, etc., but she continued to have
social events at the White House to bolster morale — which some people approved
and others criticized.”

   In more contemporary administrations, First Ladies have allowed themselves more
self-expression. Mamie Eisenhower had charm bracelets, says Karlin, and Nancy Reagan
is known for having liked big gemstones. “Jackie Kennedy was pretty conservative and wore mostly pearls on the campaign trail for Jack. And she did not wear a lot of jewelry while she was First Lady. She often wore dresses that had jewels sewn on and very often would just wear very long earrings. But she had one piece, a fabulous, rather large antique diamond starburst brooch, which she wore all the time — sometimes under the bust of an Empire dress, sometimes as a hair ornament with no other jewelry. I noticed that when Michelle Obama got up to speak at the first convention in 2008, she was wearing a
costume starburst brooch in the exact same place.”

   Michelle Obama, continues Karlin, “likes to mix it up. She wears pearls, but takes it
to a new dimension, alternating from traditional to large, colored pearls. For the first inauguration, she wore beautiful diamond jewelry by Loree Rodkin but on a day-to-day basis, sometimes she’ll wear little tiny pendants that say ‘hope’ and ‘peace,’ and other times she wears big, in-your-face, contemporary jewelry of nonprecious materials.”

   The First Ladies all had different approaches to living life in the public eye, sums up Karlin. “Some you barely saw and others were way out there. And when you study these women and what they wore, you learn about them and how they lived their lives.” And when it comes to their jewelry, says Karlin, “The most exciting pieces are the ones we haven’t found yet.” 


A Sparkling History

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