On the 2020 campaign trail and in her first months in the White House, US vice-president Kamala Harris has made her position on jewellery clear: she’s pro-pearls. At her swearing-in ceremony in January, Harris wore a silver chain necklace set with large white pearls and a blue-purple coat by Christopher John Rogers. She sported a single strand of gleaming black pearls — a go-to for public appearances — to receive her first and second doses of the Moderna vaccine, pairing them each time with a black shirt and dress trousers. On numerous occasions, including when she was photographed for her official White House portrait, Harris has accessorised her suits with two thin gold chains studded with pearls of varying sizes — a look that nails the improbable feat of being both eye-catching and understated.

Pearls are a longtime favourite of women in US politics, especially the closely watched women of the White House, from Jacqueline Kennedy to first female secretary of state Madeleine Albright. While fashion can be used as an effective form of political communication — think of those accessible J Crew pieces that helped establish Michelle Obama’s image as a relatable First Lady — jewellery “can be a little perilous”, particularly for elected and appointed officials, says Susan Page, Washington bureau chief at USA Today. Draping oneself in diamonds can read as out-of-touch to the American public, but looking too casual can signal a lack of respect for one’s office. Pearls, then, “are the political jewellery of choice because they are classic and beautiful and dressy, but they are not extravagant or flashy”, says Page. “They hit that sweet spot in politics where you look well dressed — you’re representing your country — but you’re not showing off.”

Pearls can express one’s seriousness, says Ikram Goldman, the Chicago retailer who helped dress Obama during her early days as First Lady. Associated with wisdom and maturity, they communicate a sense of reliability. “Wearing a strand of pearls in a position of power says to people, ‘I’m safe, you’re going to be OK, and this is all good,’” she says. Of course, they also happen to photograph beautifully and, for Obama, they added a sense of tradition to the more modern, bare-armed shift dresses that became her signature.

What pearls communicate depends very much on who is wearing them and how. For one of the nation’s earliest First Ladies, they were part of a tactical play to elevate the office of the president. At the start of the 19th century, Washington DC was a rough-and-tumble commuter town populated by men who stayed at boarding houses while there for work, leaving their families at home. Dolley Madison, wife of fourth US president James Madison, changed that. A charismatic hostess, she constructed what historian Catherine Allgor calls an “unofficial sphere of politics” that brought families to Washington. People drank, danced and did business at her soirées, creating the impression of a ruling class.

Indeed, despite their rejection of the idea of monarchy, leaders of this fledgling nation needed to borrow a hint of aristocratic styling in order to reassure their constituents that the right people were in charge — and pearls were part of their arsenal. For her husband’s inaugural ball, Madison stood out from the crowd in a velvet gown with a long train, a turban trimmed with bird-of-paradise feathers and a string of pearls. “What can you wear, what can you show the populace, that is elevated enough, refined enough, beautiful enough, that they know you’re a superior being without lurching over into being royalty?” says Allgor. Pearls were the perfect answer. They were just special enough.

For First Ladies of the more modern era, such as Jackie Kennedy, pearls could support a glamorous image. They could also reflect approachability. Consider Barbara Bush, who was not a fashion plate but was a loyalist to fake pearls, specifically a triple-strand style designed by US costume jeweller Kenneth Jay Lane. “Barbara Bush was completely no-nonsense and not fussy. She had a real distaste for pretence,” says Page, whose Bush biography, The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty, was published in 2019. Bush’s pearls were a wry spin on tradition — and perhaps, Page says, a way to tweak her predecessor, the impeccably dressed Nancy Reagan, with whom she had a fraught relationship.

Bush’s oversized pearls also served the convenient purpose of covering up her neck wrinkles. She joked about it, but, according to her former deputy press secretary Jean Becker, “She absolutely hated her neck.”

Bush auctioned off dozens of those triple-strand necklaces for charity, and at her funeral in 2018 many of the women in attendance wore pearls in tribute. During her White House tenure, staff topped the Christmas tree in her office with a Barbara Bush angel wearing — of course — pearls. “It was such a part of who she was,” says Becker.

Harris seems poised to become a pearl influencer of another sort. While her jewellery plays to the expectations of establishment Washington — and expresses the gravitas that Goldman describes — her necklaces’ unique colours and designs convey a sense of modernity that’s enhanced by her overall styling. This is a vice-president who wears her pearls and suit jackets with Converse sneakers, and who selected a look by the young, up-and-coming Christopher John Rogers for her inaugural outfit.

The modern way that Harris wears pearls seems to echo the historic nature of her vice-presidency, as the first woman and first person of colour to hold that office. Pearls also refer back to her undergraduate days at Howard University, a historically black university in DC, where she was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first black Greek-letter sorority: AKA refers to its founders and incorporators as the “Twenty Pearls”.

Harris’s pearl jewellery “feels very fresh and updated”, says Matthew Rosenheim, CEO of Tiny Jewel Box, a 91-year-old jewellery store that sits a short walk from the White House. (Among its fans is Albright, who has purchased several of her famous brooches there.) Rosenheim says that customers regularly make reference to Harris’s pearls while shopping; he’s increasingly seeing sales inspired by her style.

The trickle-down effect of pearls in DC is real. Abra Belke, who runs the blog Capitol Hill Style, says that for many women in politics, pearls represent a sense of belonging, of having arrived. They are also a symbol of success: if you grew up admiring influential women in politics, they probably wore pearls. “When you look back at the women who have famously worn pearls, you’re talking about everybody from queens of England to First Ladies to high-powered CEOs to Supreme Court justices,” says Belke. “It’s a unifying thing that you see on women of the 20th century who had power.” A unifier that’s poised to carry on well into the 21st century too.

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