When Michelle Obama closed out Monday night’s Democratic National Convention program, the former first lady wore a silky chocolate-colored blouse and thin gold hoop earrings. She also sported a message written in gold letters along a delicate gold chain: “vote.”
As viewers reacted to Obama’s somber, intimate speech — a starkly candid view of a suffering country — they were also scouring the Internet to find out more about her choice of accessory. In the last hour of the convention, her necklace was trending among all United States Google searches.
By the time the speech was broadcast, Los Angeles-based jewelry designer Chari Cuthbert knew Obama would be wearing her necklace on-air — her mother emailed her a preview clip of the speech that had aired on CNN earlier in the day.
“I was already over the moon at that point, but I didn’t realize the effect it was actually going to have,” the 36-year-old Jamaican-Chinese American designer said. “Actually seeing it during the entire speech, and then the immediate reaction — it was incredible.”
That the necklace would be worn by Obama in public — or that it would capture national attention — wasn’t something Cuthbert anticipated when Meredith Koop, the former first lady’s longtime stylist, emailed her in late July, using the email address on her website that anyone else would use. Koop asked how long it would take to make the custom item.
She’s still not sure how her brand captured Koop’s attention.
Although Obama’s necklace was a custom order, since Monday night it’s earned its own page on her website. In the first 24 hours after its prime-time debut, about 2,000 “vote” necklaces sold. The website registered 171,000 visits in that period. The hoops Obama wore on Monday night were also designed by Cuthbert.
The first lady opted for the yellow gold necklace option with large letters that retails for $405. (Obama’s cost $430, because she added some length to the chain, Cuthbert says.) It was a normal sale, not discounted or comped, she said.
It’s not the first time Cuthbert has made the piece. She originally produced it in 2016 and resurfaced the design in 2018 ahead of the midterm elections because she was concerned about “women’s rights,” she said.
Although she says her jewelry isn’t political, social causes are important to the designer.
Cuthbert’s website has always featured a “How You Can Help” section linking to petitions to sign. It highlights campaigns on behalf of justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and links to donate to their families. She also lists organizations to support including Black Lives Matter and the Minnesota Freedom Fund. And there’s a link to register to vote.
“That was always just instilled within me from a very young age. I’ve just always known how privileged and grateful I am for the things and the opportunities I’ve been given. And not everybody has that,” Cuthbert said.
In the past, she has focused on giving back to organizations that focus on women and children, because “motherhood is a vulnerable place in this world. And it requires a lot of strength. And not everyone has a village to help to help raise the child, so sometimes I think the littlest things can help,” she said. In 2017, after successful Mother’s Day sales, she donated a portion of sales to Elizabeth House, a nonprofit that helps pregnant women and mother based in Pasadena, Calif.
Cuthbert says a portion of the profits from the “vote” necklace will go toward No Kid Hungry, she said.
But in the meantime, Cuthbert has orders to process.
On Monday, when her friends called to tell her she was going viral during the Democratic convention, she was inundated with congratulatory messages. Tuesday was a busy day: She was on the phone, returning messages and arranging interviews. She forgot to eat until her sister — who is currently in Jamaica — ordered her a food delivery at 2 p.m.
“I’m overwhelmed, but I’m going to enjoy it. People ask, ‘What’s next?’ And you forget to just sit and enjoy the moment, because this moment is going to pass, and it’s going to go quick, and I’m going to not remember it or how I felt or where I was. And this is a big deal,” Cuthbert said.
She started the business in 2012 from Hawaii, where she was recovering from burnout after working as an executive assistant. She built the website, took the photographs and made the jewelry entirely on her own.
“It’s a big deal for me as a business owner. I started this company with $100 and I bootstrapped it all the way up. And now I have seven employees. It’s a milestone moment in the business and I do really just want to enjoy that.”