Why have pearls played such a powerful role in the lives of female politicians? Jewelry experts dish on the significance of this lustrous gem in statesmanship.
When America’s first female vice president was sworn in on Jan. 20, 2021, she wore a purple coat and dress by Christopher John Rogers and a familiar white sight around her neck and on her ears: pearls. This certainly wasn’t the first time a politician has worn pearls, and thankfully it’s far from the last.
Pearls have had a place in American politics for as long as patriotism has existed. From Martha Washington’s and Mary Todd Lincoln’s beloved seed pearls to Ladybird Johnson’s and Jackie Kennedy’s white strands to Barbara and Laura Bush’s South Seas and more, pearl necklaces have been a fixture on the necks of first ladies and other powerful women in politics, who wear them for the understated elegance and classical beauty they offer. Diamonds would be too brash, but pearls? “They’re not ostentatious and they go with everything,” observes longtime Washington, D.C.–based jeweler Ann Hand.
For sure, pearls convey good taste and a femininity that other gems just can’t match. This is why so many female politicians—young and mature, from Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to Nancy Pelosi—wear them. “It’s hard to be offended by pearl jewelry,” says Diana Singer, president of the American Society of Jewelry Historians.
Of course, pearls have a history of being adored by royalty and elites, but that storied past has evolved, along with pearls, to convey traditional values. Plus, unlike faceted gems with fire and sparkle, pearls won’t overpower the wearer—they enhance her. “Pearls are the only gem that show off the woman instead of the woman showing off the gem,” says Peggy Grosz, director of business and product development for Assael.
Pearls have also historically denoted purity, a characteristic that is meaningful. Pearls don’t require faceting before wear, and Tahitian and South Sea pearls, in particular, don’t need dyes or bleaching. “Pearls have signified truth, trust, and reliability,” notes Jill Newman, a longtime jewelry journalist and a contributor to Town & Country.
For Lauren A. Rothman, founder of Styleauteur in Washington, D.C., a fashion consultancy that caters to businesswomen, including many in politics, pearls are a tool: they’re a timeless accessory that almost all women own. And whether a woman is going into the boardroom or sitting in on a Zoom call, pearls can make her feel and look professional. In a fashion sense, pearls are a unifier for women from both sides of the aisle.
“Women in politics have not dedicated a lot of time to fashion and style, but you can’t make a mistake wearing pearls,” she explains. “In politics, you must be classic and relatable.”
And just like for Vice President Harris, pearls are a nonverbal tool that help capture an audience. From suits with sneakers to denim, “Pearls are that bridge,” adds Rothman.
Pearls—especially large pearls—also suggest power. While the variety of pearls purchased depends on resources, the symbolism is universal. Remember Cleopatra and that crushed pearl in the wine, making it the most lavish dinner party of her time? Or when Coco Chanel gifted beloved pearls to pal Diana Vreeland? These are power moves by women, the “flexing of feminine muscle,” says Singer.
“Pearls almost give you cover for speaking your mind,” observes Sarah Pallone of Ocean’s Cove Jewelry, a onetime public policy appointee who worked for the Obama Administration but has since shifted gears to making jewelry—including many items for Washington, D.C.’s political power brokers. “Pearls are the power suit and tie for women.”
Famous Political Pearl Wearers
Women in politics have made lasting impressions with their pearl choices. Consider first ladies Barbara and Laura Bush, both of whom loved classic strands of South Sea pearls; U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s oversize strand of Tahitian and mixed colors of South Sea pearls; former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s choker-length strands; and the pearl studs of Ocasio-Cortez, U.S. Representative for New York's 14th congressional district.
And besides Harris’s inauguration day gold and white South Sea necklace, made by Wilfredo Rosada, she is known for wearing other fashion-forward pearl jewelry from makers Irene Neuwirth and Marco Bicego, according to Newman. “She’s showing how the pearl has evolved and how it can be worn in so many different ways, with colorful gemstones, diamonds, and bold gold.” [The veep’s love of pearls stems from her sorority days at Howard University, where the 20 founding members of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first black Greek-letter sorority, are referred to as the Twenty Pearls, and each new member is given a badge with 20 pearls.]
Jackie Kennedy’s famous triple-strand of pearls may have been faux—made by Kenneth Jay Lane—but it nabbed a precious price at a 1996 Sotheby’s auction when it sold for more than $200,000. True pearl nerds recognized—and rejoiced—when Gabby Giffords, onetime U.S. congresswoman representing Arizona’s 8th congressional district, wore what looked like a necklace of Sea of Cortez pearls during the 2016 State of the Union address. Other politicians, like former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman, U.S. congresswoman from Michigan’s 12th district Debbie Dingell, and the late associate justice of the Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg, have been widely photographed wearing pearls.
Hand has made jewelry to commemorate presidential inaugurations since the first Clinton administration, and both Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright have been photographed wearing a brooch she designed. Not surprisingly, her most famous brooch has a pearl, something even political men admire. When she made a pearl-free version of her signature Eagle pin for an Air Force general, he called to voice a complaint: Where was the pearl? “I knew females would want the pearl but not necessarily the men,” she explains of the omission.
Matthew and Jim Rosenheim, too, have a long history in both pearls and politics. Their store, The Tiny Jewel Box, is a mere seven-minute walk from the White House, and Secretary of State Albright (the first woman to hold the position) has been a well-known patron. Tiny Jewel Box even sold her some of the famous pins featured in her book “Read My Pins.”
“We were so proud to have her wear things from the store,” says Jim Rosenheim, CEO.
Future Pearls in Politics
Given the lustrous history of these organic gems in D.C. and state capitols nationwide, experts expect the love affair to continue.
The Tiny Jewel Box’s core clientele? Attorneys and lobbyists, who include pearls as a large part of their jewelry wardrobes. “In D.C., if you come on too strong with jewelry or wealth, you could be considered not a serious person,” observes Matthew. “But what we saw with Harris can only help raise the profile of pearls.”
As Jackie Kennedy famously said, “Pearls are always appropriate,” and Newman knows that pearls will never go out of style. “We are going to continue to see a lot of pearls in every style imaginable.”
Grosz agrees, with the caveat that merchants can only sell what they have in store. Given pearls’ high profile, she wonders what that lightbulb moment will be for established jewelry retailers to stock them. “The new generation of retailers associate pearls with fashion and realize what a hugely important category they will be for some time to come,” she says.
Pallone giggles whenever she hears pearls called the hot new trend because they’ve been a mainstay for collectors, including her congressional clients. “Pearls really are the key to bipartisanship,” she says.
Kamala Harris on inauguration day in a gold and white South Sea necklace by Wilfredo Rosado
Photo: Wilfredo Rosado
Laura Bush in golden South Sea pearls at the National Archives Foundation Records of Achievement Annual Award Gala on Oct. 10, 2018
Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for National Archives Foundation
Condoleezza Rice in one of her famous pearl necklaces
Nancy Pelosi in her mixed Tahitian and South Sea strand
Debbie Dingell in pearls at a rally
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in pearl studs at a rally
Former Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina in pearls
Barbara Bush in one of her famous pearl necklaces