Michelle Obama’s VOTE necklace puts Jamaican designer in the spotlight

A report by Laura Zornosa for The Los Angeles Times. Our thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.

During a Tuesday afternoon interview, Chari Cuthbert’s Zoom background was a blank canvas for her jewelry. She perched on a beige couch, between two cream-colored prints on a white wall. Layered atop her pale dress were at least two sets of hoops, a cuff earring, a necklace, five bracelets and two handfuls of rings. And she woke up like this.

“How you see me is how I go to bed,” she said. “I shower like this. I work out like this. I go to Pilates like this. I hike like this. I woke up like this.”

She did not, however, wake up on Monday morning knowing that Michelle Obama would wear her VOTE necklace to speak at the Democratic National Convention that night. She did not wake up knowing that her jewelry line, BYCHARI, would sell 4,000 pieces (at $295 each) in two days when, on a normal day, her seven-woman team would receive around 200 orders.

“The best way I can put: It’s everything that we’ve worked for,” Cuthbert told The Times the following day. “It’s everything that we’ve worked for happening in one day, in 24 hours.”

When Obama’s longtime stylist, Meredith Koop, came to Cuthbert about the necklace, she had no idea the former first lady would wear it during her DNC speech. Cuthbert wasn’t even sure the hoops Obama was wearing were also her handiwork until Koop confirmed it.

But you’d better believe she was watching that speech.

She stayed late at the shop’s downtown L.A. office because she didn’t want to risk missing it on the drive home. Once those four golden letters appeared onscreen, the messages started rolling in. A steady stream of texts, DMs, calls and shares stunned Cuthbert — so much so that she rewatched the speech to make sure she didn’t miss anything.

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She sat at her desk, she said, and cried for five minutes, describing the moment as “overwhelming in the best way possible.”

“Michelle Obama is the Holy Grail,” Cuthbert said. “She’s the queen. She is the woman to be. She’s the woman to listen to.”

As the jewelry designer sat in that bubble at her desk, friends and family reaching out, she didn’t even think to look at the shop’s website — or its sales. Then a friend from Jamaica, where Cuthbert was raised, reached out. “You’re breaking Twitter,” her friend messaged. “Do you have a link for me?”

The necklace was, in fact, all over Twitter. It was all over the whole internet. It topped Google’s trending searches in the last hour of the convention. The next day, the press phone calls began to roll in.

“They’re like, ‘People want to talk to you,’” Cuthbert said. “I’m like, ‘Me? What did I do? I didn’t wear the necklace.’”

Cuthbert decided to block off one day to talk to reporters. Then, she would tackle the growing stack of orders.

“This is all great: interviews and phone calls and me looking cute,” she said on Tuesday afternoon. “I’m going to be in sweatpants cutting chain until probably midnight tomorrow. I’m going to be in the trenches with the girls.”

The necklace might be going viral now, but it’s been around for four years. Cuthbert first spelled out VOTE with a spaced-letter necklace during the 2016 presidential election. And she did it again for the midterm elections in 2018. This time, she decided to share it on social media.

“I very rarely take to social media with my personal messaging or voice,” she said. “And I thought it was just so important, especially at the time, it was all about women’s rights. And I thought, ‘Why not use my platform?’”

Cuthbert said her designs have never been about catching the latest trend. Rather, they aim to tell stories (sometimes literally, in the case of the spaced-letter necklace.) The VOTE necklace itself began as a subtle, beautiful way of spreading a message.

“We do T-shirts, we do hats, but who did a necklace?” Cuthbert said. “And I thought that would’ve been a really beautiful way, and it also is a gift to somebody, to encourage them to use their platform, say their piece.”

Now, she hopes to have a pervasive impact on the community. But it certainly hasn’t always been this way.

Born in the U.S. to Jamaican parents, the designer grew up in Jamaica, moved to Miami and attended the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale for three years After that, she ping-ponged between Las Vegas and Los Angeles and then moved to Hawaii on a whim, where she photographed weddings for a year before launching her jewelry line in 2012..

She said importing materials to the island state proved expensive, so four years ago, it was “deep breath, big leap, back to L.A.” She’s been here ever since.

The business grew slowly and steadily at first, helped along by Rocky Barnes, a model and friend of Cuthbert’s who regularly tags the brand on Instagram. In 2016, Barnes posted a selfie showcasing a custom “ROCKY” necklace.

Cuthbert draws inspiration from the women around her — so much so that many of the pieces are named after them. The new “everyday essential” Serinda hoops, for example, are an homage to friend Serinda Swan. She is, in the designer’s words, a “classic woman.”

Cuthbert, too, comes across as a classic. In many ways, she evokes Michelle Obama: choosing her words carefully, full of poise and grace. She stumbled a couple of times doing the rounds with press, she said, but she felt good about it. She emits a quiet pride.

“The jewelry line is an extension of who I am,” she said. “It’s simple, sexy and timeless.”

She says it’s not about her, it’s about how the jewelry makes the wearer feel. It’s about “generations of women enjoying one simple thing.” She pointed out that the women in her life, from her mom’s friends to her toddler nieces, wear her jewelry.

It’s something the creator envisions mothers passing down to daughters, the way her mom gave her the gold pinky ring she waves in front of the camera. She aims to create everyday pieces that evoke the feminine.

“It’s not so much necessarily down to the design aspect,” Cuthbert said. “Sometimes it’s more about a feeling and a moment and how something should lay on your neck and how earrings should look during summer with your hair in a bun.”

Before the unexpected Michelle Obama moment, the brand had been planning to gift friends and celebrities with jewelry to help spread the word. And, when this crest of orders settles down, that’s still the plan. BYCHARI also plans to continue donating to organizations like Elizabeth HouseGirlTrek and Girl Code. And it plans to keep growing.

“This is a timeless moment. I mean, when am I gonna get this again?” Cuthbert said. “Everybody’s like, this is downhill from here. I’m like, no, no, no. We’re only going up from here.”

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