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The power and politics of gems

Jewel purpose

Politicians use their adornments to send subliminal messages. Anne McElvoy decodes them

Politicians use their adornments to send subliminal messages. Anne McElvoy decodes them

Anne McElvoy | October/November 2016

For Hillary Clinton, it used to be a hefty pair of gold earrings, or diamond and sapphire ones – classy bling left over from her days as First Lady. Nowadays, it is an uncluttered pair of hoop earrings, a simple chain and a bracelet featuring a picture of her granddaughter. From Roman amulets to the grand pearls of mighty society hostesses, baubles have projected the values and aspirations of the wearer. But power jewellery today is used more subtly – to underscore a shift in message, target a specific audience or suggest a more irreverent side to a staid image.

In Clinton’s case, that has meant downplaying some of the showier pieces that until recently defined her style. “Do you prefer diamonds or pearls?” she was asked in 2007. “I want both,” she replied. Now, not so much. On her second quest for the presidency, Hillary’s jewellery consists of classic adornments with a note of folksy sentimentality. She often wears a charm bracelet and necklace by Monica Rich Kosann, a jeweller who creates pieces intended as heirlooms. This focus on homely continuity projects reassurance and encourages conversation: Hillary’s bracelet contains pictures of Charlotte, her granddaughter, prompting people to crowd around for a peek. It underlines the candidate’s accessibility and helps offset a reputation for haughtiness.

Theresa May, Britain’s post-Brexit prime minister, has also marked a political journey through her choice of jewellery. Everyone remembers the late Margaret Thatcher’s imperious adornments – long strings of pearls and regal brooches (a diamond-flower one from the reign of George II made the point). Like many prominent women of the Conservative tribe, May began by emulating Thatcher’s old-fashioned grandeur; but it doesn’t look so good in an era of post-crash belt-tightening and declining deference to politicians.

So May has sharpened her accessories and now sports quirky geometric jewellery: usually a single eye-catching piece such as the necklace of large blue plastic “molecules” she wore to her first cabinet meeting and a hefty silver necklace with dominatrix overtones – promising the smack of firm government, perhaps.

Tessa Packard, a London-based designer, reckons the new trend in power jewellery relies on a single good-quality piece that draws the eyes, rather than an ensemble of fussy ones. “The palate for women projecting power is more neutral and subtle than it was, say, a decade ago: pearls, neutrals, greys and blacks.” Park Geun-Hye, South Korea’s president, follows those rules more stylishly than any other female leader.

Keeping neutral
Park Geun-Hye wears a Sariang brooch

Sentimental decoration
Hillary Clinton with her charm bracelet

Prima inter pares when it comes to sending symbols of intent through well-chosen trinkets is Madeleine Albright, America’s first female secretary of state. She has described using her pins (power-jewellery types eschew the mimsy term “brooch”) to project defiance or underline a strategic aim. Albright’s décolletage diplomacy began after the first Gulf war, when Iraqi media described her as an “unparalleled serpent”. Revenge was swift. “I happened to have a snake pin, and wore it to my next meeting on Iraq,” she recalls. “I was the only woman on the Security Council, and I decided to get some more costume jewellery. On good days, I wore flowers and butterflies and balloons, and on bad days, all kinds of bugs and carnivorous animals.”

Some traditions survive new trends. Power pearls have made a comeback. Michelle Obama’s outsize ones are an in-joke: the First Lady could wear real pearls if she wanted but chooses ones that channel the elegance of Jackie Kennedy even though they are available for $100 at Banana Republic. Clinton selects a large pearl collar necklace for formal portraits, as did May for her first Prime Minister’s Questions joust.

But you don’t have to wear pearls and gems to communicate with jewellery. Minimalists should look to Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, for inspiration. In her early years in politics in the ascetic world of the old East Germany she wore, at most, a market-stall piece made of fabric or cheap silver. Once established at the helm of German politics she established a reliable look – strong-coloured, boxy jackets and large necklaces in semi-precious stones which remind Germans of their geography teachers. These too send useful messages. Amber beads mined from the Baltic Seas underline her connection to unshowy north Germany. When she debated her Social Democratic rival before the last election in 2013, she chose a thin metal necklace in red, gold and black, the colours of the German flag, visible in every TV headshot, and underlining her personal connection to German unification and modest patriotism. The debate was dreadfully dull, but the cheap necklace won some fans. “The only thing that sparkled was the chancellor’s necklace,” said a pundit, and the necklace got its own Twitter account. An incumbent now in her third term, dallying with a fourth run at the most important job in Europe, might well have concluded that when you have been at the top for so long, you can leave power jewellery to those on the way up.

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