America’s First Ladies and their Jewelry

The types of jewelry the various first ladies wore and what they spent on their adornments gives an interesting lens through which to view a presidency as well as a specific time period in our country’s history.

Last week Elyse Zorn Karlin, a jewelry historian and editor-in-chief of Adornment, The Magazine of Jewelry and Related Arts, gave a fascinating presentation about first ladies and their jewelry. The event was held at a club in New York City and Karlin’s remarks were part of her research on a book about the First Ladies, which she is co-authoring with Yvonne Markowitz, the Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan Curator of Jewelry at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

For anyone who loves jewelry, the explanations of why Eleanor wore what she wore, or who has inspired Michelle are guaranteed to fascinate. Karlin told interesting stories about the adornments worn by first ladies ranging from Martha Washington, Abigail Adams and Mamie Eisenhower to Jackie Kennedy and Michelle Obama. Her research process, particularly for the earliest first ladies requires serious sleuthing.

“We read biographies of the presidential wife in question, and we may encounter one or two mentions of an item of jewelry,” says Karlin. “We study photographs and paintings, and then we track through any type of ledger pertaining to the personal expenses of a president.

“At museum sites like Mount Vernon, the curators believe that most of the jewelry in their collection that they attribute to Martha’s ownership was hers, but with some pieces there is no way to be certain. It may have belonged to a daughter or one of her granddaughters. There is often no accompanying record or provenance. We are constantly working to ascertain what each first lady actually wore and which items she may have valued above all others.”

In her remarks, Karlin told a remarkable story of discovery about a watch that was thought to belong to Martha Washington. Karlin and her co-author read about Martha owning a pocket watch in a biography by Helen Bryan. In phoning around, they discovered that the type of pocket watch described was in a collection held at Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh, NY. The watch was very memorable because over each number of the face on the watch was a letter, spelling out MARTHA CUSTIS. For 150 years, it was believed to be Martha Washington’s watch, given to her when she was married to her first husband, Daniel Custis.

Karlin and Markowitz made an appointment to go to Newburgh to see the watch, and in preparation for their arrival, the curator took the watch out and arranged for it to be cleaned. This led to a fascinating discovery: the watch could not have belonged to Martha Custis Washington as in opening the case, the experts re-evaluated the date, learning that it was made in 1792, at which time Martha would have decidedly been Martha Washington, not Martha Custis.

Now knowing that the watch could not have belonged to Martha Washington, Karlin and Markowitz followed the story and were able to prove the watch belonged to Martha’s granddaughter, also named Martha Custis. Their verification of this was based on documents found in the granddaughter’s house (the Tudor House in Georgetown, outside Washington, D.C.)

Martha Washington had two granddaughters and had given them each a watch with a watch face that had their name on it. She intended to give her niece, a Halyburton, her own watch, but one of the granddaughters (Martha Custis, but called Patty) begged to inherit her grandmother’s watch, and so Martha asked younger Martha to give her own watch to the niece. This is why the “Martha Custis” watch was passed on to a Halyburton and to future generations through that family line. The Halyburton family held on to the watch until 1869, at which point they must have needed the cash so they sold it.

Stories like this cannot help but captivate. They also help explain some of the values of a first family and help us better understand the people of an era.

If you are interested in the history of jewelry, there are still a few seats left at the annual conference sponsored by the Association for the Study of Jewelry & Related Arts, held in New York City on May 15: “One More Time: Jewelry Fakes, Revivals, Recycling and Reproductions.” For more information: http://www.jewelryconference.com

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