On America's birthday month, I thought we should talk about America's national gemstone. Except we don’t have one… I heard it might be tourmaline, turquoise, or opal. All are found in these great United States, but I couldn’t find any that were officially declared as the Gemstone for America. Weird, because lots of states have official gemstones. In New Mexico, it’s turquoise. Alabama has a diamond. But I’m going to follow our wise Southern states Kentucky and Tennessee, and say it should be the PEARL. Why, you say? Well, not just because I personally love pearls. No, I look to the leadership of this great nation. And I’m not talking about the President. Everyone knows the real power in any household always rests with the wives! I’m talking about our lovely First Ladies. So what gem did almost all First Ladies always wear frequently? That's right, the lovely pearl.
From our very first First Lady Martha Washington to our current First Lady Jill Biden, pearls are their gem of choice. And First Ladies do have an influence on fashion and trends. Martha Washington had a beautiful pearl brooch in the shape of dove that she was quite fond of. She also wore many pieces accented with seed pearls, like cameos and other brooches, which was the fashion of the day.
Abigail Adams, our second First Lady, wore what would become the timeless classic – the three strand pearl necklace. What’s interesting about Abigail’s pearls is that they were faux. They were a common imitation – glass beads. Abigail was from a family that would have been unable to afford such a luxury. Many First Ladies have continued to wear imitation pearls, feeling that the real thing is sometimes too ostentatious, especially when the nation is not enjoying widespread prosperity.
Abigail Adams wearing the classic three-strand necklace
Dolley Madison, our nation’s 4th First Lady, was a true Southern belle, renowned for her manners and hospitality. Probably remembered by most people for saving precious items from the White House before it was burned to the ground by British troops, she was an astute political wife who used their frequent dinner parties to ease tensions between the two parties vying for power. She took her role as First Lady seriously, and made a conscious effort to promote our new nation through her fashion choices. Dolley wore velvet and pearls, when most royalty in Europe wore satin and diamonds.
President John Tyler caused quite a Washington scandal when he quickly remarried the very young Julia Tyler. At 24, she was 30 years younger than him. Vivacious, beautiful, and stylish, Julia had expensive, refined taste.
Julia Tyler, decked out in pearls
She frequently wore a pearl diadem in addition to her other pearl jewelry. A wealthy socialite by birth, she was not shy about flaunting her beauty or fashions. Rumor is that she had eight white Arabian horses drive her coach around town.
Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln wore pearls as well. A common photograph of her shows her wearing a matching necklace and bracelet set from Tiffany that her husband purchased for her in 1862. Unfortunately, it was to console her after the death of their baby and her half-brother.
Grace Coolidge, First Lady during the roaring ’20’s, wore long strands of pearls and plenty of other flapper fashions. She was so commonly seen with an oversized strand of pearls that her portrait on the newly released gold coin includes it.
Grace Coolidge with her pearl necklace on the 2014 gold coin
Mamie Eisenhower, a woman forever associated with pink because she wore it so frequently, made headlines for being a thrifty fashionista. She often wore costume jewelry from discount stores. Mamie’s favorite accessories were a pearl choker and pearl button earrings.
Besides the pearls around her neck, Mamie Eisenhower held a purse stitched with over 300 pearls.
No post about pearls and First Ladies can be complete without a mention of Jackie Kennedy. Famous not just for pearls, but also oversize sunglasses, sleeveless sheath dresses, head scarves, and pillbox hats. Jackie was the style icon of her day.
I know when I say pearls are “timeless,” there are lots of people thinking only their grandma can wear them. They’re not hip or cool for younger women. But I think Mamie and Jackie show how a young, beautiful woman can wear pearls and look fashionable.
What’s so wonderful about pearls is the variety. They can be imitation (inexpensive) or real (expensive). They come in tons of colors! A single pearl drop necklace can make a completely a different statement than a strand of colored pearls. Pearls come in different shapes, sizes, and styles, and allow you a ton of styling possibilities. My favorite pearls right now are turquoise. They’re imitation glass beads, because pearls aren’t naturally turquoise, but I don’t care. I wear lots of blue, and they provide a nice contrast. Fashion should be about what makes you feel good, and gives you confidence.
Modern First Ladies
As we get to more recent history, Nancy Reagan is most remembered for wearing her signature color – red.
Barbara Bush and Michelle Obama win the award for wearing the most pearls. Melania Trump was definitely a diamonds kind of girl, and it's too early to see what jewelry Jill Biden will be wearing frequently.
Barbara Bush wearing pearls
Of Barbara and Michelle, Barbara is the clear winner. It didn't matter what photograph I found, she was always wearing pearls. Typically a two or three strand necklace. Barbara become famous for her signature pearls. They were imitation pearls, and a symbol of her simple, practical style. She wore them to meet Princess Diana. They are on the cover of her memoir.
Michelle also wore pearls frequently, and wore pearls with more variety. She wore all kinds of colored pearls, long strands, short strands, single, double, triple stands. Her official White House photograph has her wearing the classic pearl necklace.
America has had more than 40 First Ladies. And it’s stunning to me how many images I can find of First Ladies with their pearls. I think they show the amazing adaptability of pearls. For a gem to continually be that fashionable for over 200 years….. well, it’s pretty remarkable. Unique. And American. That’s why the pearl has my vote to be America’s Gem.
This post has been edited and updated since it was originally posted on July 3, 2015.