PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Thanks to Barbara Bush, American women are dusting off their strands of pearls. And so are the nation's jewelry merchants.
Industry officials say women in America have keyed in on the thick strands of white imitation pearls Bush wears constantly to public engagements, and quite a few are asking for the same when they head to their local jewelers.
'We had a lot of wholesale buyers coming in looking for them when we had our show in New York (in January),' said Charles W. Rice, president of the Providence-based United Jewelry Show, marketing arm of the costume jewelry industry.
'The funny thing is that many people had these type of pearls for years,' he said. 'So all they had to do is dust them off and move them from the back shelf to the front shelf.'
'Not long after her husband was elected she was shown with the pearls on and before we knew it we were getting calls from customers for two or three strand necklaces,' added Michael Ruggerio, vice president of design for the Napier Co. of New York and Meriden, Conn.
'I expect she will have an influence at least through this year and it will probably lessen over the next three years,' he said.
According to an aide, Bush for years has been partial to large imitation pearls, her favorite look being a three-strand necklace. She buys most of hers from New York designer Kenneth Lane, deputy press secretary Jean Becker said.
'The last time I checked she had about 10 different pearl necklaces,' Becker said. 'She says she just really likes them. Beyond that there really isn't a reason.'
Reporters, and jewelry suppliers, noticed Bush's penchant for pearls last fall as her husband made his drive for the presidency.
Mark Gurdus, vice president of sales for the Marvella division of Southport, Conn., based Crystal Brands, said his firm stepped up its production of pearled items as the election drew near.
'We somewhat capitalized on her,' Gurdus said. 'I even sent her a set of pearls and a jewelry box and I got a really nice response.'
According to Gurdus, the increase in pearl popularity has been unmistakeable, with retailers reporting their stock sold out before it arrives. But not all can be attributed to the first lady. Gurdus said a large part of the equation is that pearl sales are cyclical, and it is time for their resurgence.
'Barbara Bush wearing them every night on the 6 p.m. news is really not hurting, though,' he said.
'Her coming in with the pearls in combination with the Chanel look (accessorizing with pearls) being in vogue right now, those two factors have expanded the pearl business of late,' Napier's Ruggerio said.
Over the years, first ladies traditionally have had some effect on U.S. fashion, Jacqueline Kennedy being the most notable example.
Nancy Reagan, renowned for her preference for designer wear, opted for smaller jewelry in accordance with her size and touched off a blip in industry sales, Rice said.
Even her husband managed to generate a Western-wear ripple with his laid-back, weekend attire.
Barbara Bush is seen as somewhat of a departure, Rice observed. While some feel she would never satisfy anyone's definition as a 'fashion plate,' she has nevertheless managed to make a definitive fashion statement.
'Everone can emulate her because everyone thinks of her more or less like a mother,' Rice said.
How does the first lady respond to her place in fashion history?
With a smile, Becker says.
'Suddenly she is setting all these trends and she kind of gets a kick out of it,' Becker said. 'She enjoys looking nice and certainly looks her best, but it is not what is most important.'