Wear Your Pearls Day, A Protocol Metaphor

December 15 is national Wear Your Pearls Day in the U.S. Far from a frivolous salute to a gem that is the unofficial symbol of the protocol profession, the day has a deeper meaning whose symbolism correlates nicely with what we do.

The observance was started in 2016 by motivational speaker and author DeAnna Bookert to remind people about their inner power to overcome obstacles. Afterall, a pearl is created by an oyster when an irritating bit of dirt gets inside the shell. In time, the irritant is coated with a lovely nacre and something beautiful is produced. Isn’t that a fitting metaphor for what protocol professionals do every day? We take in problems and smooth the way for something good to be created, whether it is soothing hurt feelings, setting the stage for negotiations, or welcoming visitors.

One of my favorite pearl stories was told by the late Letitia Baldrige, etiquette icon and White House social secretary to Jacqueline Kennedy. In her book, A Lady, First she describes how as a young professional in 1950, she foolishly sold a strand of rare natural pearls that were a gift from her father to a Parisian jeweler for a tiny fraction of their value in order to finance a surreptitious trip into Yugoslavia with her boyfriend. Today, only one percent of pearls are natural, the remainder are cultured, meaning her necklace would have potentially become worth many thousands of dollars. Pearls have been an important trade commodity since Roman times, but I doubt this transaction would have pleased her dad!

While pearls go in and out of fashion, many famous women including Barbara Bush, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Coco Chanel, Marie Antoinette, and Queen Elizabeth I are among the gem’s most noted fans. In the U.S., a strand of pearls symbolizing grace and purity is the traditional gift for brides and girls on their 16thbirthdays. Pearls unfairly suffered a popularity dip in the late 20th century when they somehow became synonymous with stuffy ladies of a certain age. This led to the disparaging expression that a woman is “pearl clutching,” meaning offended by a breach of (likely outmoded) etiquette. Today, the creamy gems are enjoying a resurgence of popularity and can be worn with anything from jeans to formal wear.

And yes, pearls are genderless.  Atlanta Braves baseball player Joc Pederson caught the national spotlight in 2021 while wearing a strand when he slugged a homerun during the MLB playoffs. Suddenly retailers from venerable Tiffany’s to stadium vendors were selling pearls for men. In truth men in pearls is nothing new. Down through the centuries Indian maharajas, ancient Chinese emperors, and English King Henry VIII among many others have proudly worn pearls as a symbol of wealth and power. In fact, during the first century B.C., pearls were considered the ultimate status symbol leading Julius Caesar to create a law regulating who was allowed to wear them.

Which brings us back to protocol. It’s safe to say that the vast majority of women in protocol don their pearl earrings and necklaces on really important days. Capricia Penavic Marshall, White House social secretary in the Clinton administration and the United States Chief of Protocol in the Obama administration is pictured on the jacket of her book, Protocol The Power of Diplomacy and How to make it Work For You proudly and powerfully wearing a white pearl torsade.

I always wear my pearls on those occasions when I need to feel especially “dressed.” They give me quiet confidence and remind me that what we do and how we treat people matters and that we all have the power within to create beautiful pearls from life’s personal and professional challenges.