Nation & World

Faux and fabulous: How pearls became Barbara Bush's iconic fashion statement

Former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara Bush, wearing her iconic pearl necklace at a college basketball game in 2015.
Former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara Bush, wearing her iconic pearl necklace at a college basketball game in 2015. AP file

Last year, the George H.W. Bush Library and Museum hosted a public celebration for the June birthdays of the former president and first lady Barbara Bush.

Suggested attire: pearls and socks.

Colorful socks are his style statement, pearls are her trademark.

When people speak of Barbara Bush's impact on fashion as first lady, it's always about the pearls. Bush died Tuesday at age 92.

"The pearls are to cover the wrinkles, which they no longer do," she joked in 2015 with her granddaughter, Jenna Bush Hager, a "Today" show correspondent. "You can't wear pearls all over your face."

When Bush wore a three-strand necklace of faux pearls with her royal blue inaugural gown in 1989, that one piece of jewelry became a shot heard 'round the fashion world.

The three-strand necklace by costume jewelry designer Kenneth Jay Lane was nicknamed the "Barbara Bush Pearls” or the “Barbara Bush Necklace." KRT KAREN STALLWOOD

The three-strand necklace — nicknamed the "Barbara Bush Pearls” or the “Barbara Bush Necklace" — was created by a king of costume jewelry, Kenneth Jay Lane, the same man who designed the iconic, five-strand pearl necklace Audrey Hepburn wore in "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

When the Chicago Tribune caught up with the designer two months after the Bush inauguration, he was a man under siege.

"The demand is so great, it's as if they just invented the pearl," Lane told the Tribune. "I've done pearl necklaces for years and years, but it's Barbara Bush who has sent pearl sales through the ceiling.

"The three-strand necklace is by far the major look. It's outselling the double-strand significantly."

First ladies all the way back to Martha Washington have worn pearls. Abraham Lincoln gave his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, a set of seed pearl jewelry from Tiffany and Co. to celebrate his first inauguration. Michelle Obama wore pearls in both of her official White House portraits.

In the late 1980s, the fashion industry hadn't expected much from Bush in the way of setting style trends. With a crown of snowy white hair and ever-constant pearls around her neck, she projected an image of grandmother, not glamazon.

But when she wore simulated pearls on Inauguration Day, American women started dusting off their own old strands languishing in their jewelry boxes.

One costume jewelry company that had ramped up production of its pearl jewelry as the election drew closer admitted to "capitalizing" on Bush. Pearl sales tend to be cyclical, he said, but, "Barbara Bush wearing them every night on the 6 p.m. news is really not hurting."

Bush had favored large imitation pearls for years and the three-strand necklace was her favorite look, her deputy press secretary, Jean Becker, told UPI news service in May 1989.

Bush bought most of her pearls from New York-based Lane, who died last year at the age of 85. He had a famous clientele — Princess Diana, Elizabeth Taylor, Nancy Reagan, Jackie Kennedy and Britney Spears. There's a photo of Bush with the designer on the Kenneth Jay Lane website.

"The last time I checked she had about 10 different pearl necklaces," Becker told UPI at the time. "She says she just really likes them. Beyond that there really isn't a reason."

Bush once joked that she wore the three-strand necklace so much that if she ever took it off her head would fall off.

The pearls she wore for the inauguration balls were faux, but they were high-quality fakes — large, 12-millimeter glass beads. The necklace was worth about $600, Lane told the Tribune.

"If they were the real thing, they would have cost around $200,000," he said.

Bush found a bit of humor in her new status as a style icon.

"Suddenly she is setting all these trends and she kind of gets a kick out of it," Becker said at the time. "'She enjoys looking nice and certainly looks her best, but it is not what is most important."

Bush donated her inauguration gown and the famous pearl necklace to the Smithsonian Institution in 1990.

Jim McGrath, a spokesman for the Bush family, said Sunday that former First Lady Barbara Bush is in “failing health” and won’t seek additional medical treatment. He said the 92-year-old will instead focus on comfort care.