It was during the George W. Bush administration that it was first noticed in earnest, and the massive state dinners of the Barack Obama era only solidified the situation: The White House was desperately in need of crystal.
Not crystal balls, not crystal chandeliers – just crystal, the kind one drinks from.
The need next fell to then-first lady Melania Trump, as first ladies are the ones ultimately tasked with assessing and acquiring needed items for preservation or continuity of tradition at the White House. However, three people with knowledge of the glassware discussions confirm that, though Trump was aware of the situation, she declined to carry out the suggested request. CNN reached out to Trump for comment and did not receive a response.
“The last crystal that was acquired for the White House for a full state service was during the Nixon era,” said Stewart McLaurin, president of the White House Historical Association, the nonprofit organization established in 1961 by then-first lady Jacqueline Kennedy to preserve the People’s House. The Reagans did have new stemware made as a gift to the White House in the form of 130 pieces of Steuben glassware, but it was deemed only for private entertaining in the residence.
As the Bidens begin moving the White House to a more normal social schedule after years of pandemic-related restrictions, the lack of crystal is becoming an ever more pressing issue.
McLaurin said the need for crystal on the state level, approximately 120 to 160 settings, is just as important as every other element of a special event at the White House, as are the china and silver. There is plenty of china, apparently, and enough silver to set a few tables for VIP service. Using the real White House sterling silver collections for larger dinners can be a gamble, as forks, spoons and knives tend to go missing as souvenirs of the meal – slipped into coat pockets or dropped discreetly into purses.
Today, when a state dinner is held – whether on a small scale, as was the final Trump state dinner, for Australia in the Rose Garden; or a big blowout, such as the last Obama state dinner, the administration’s 14th such event that had more than 350 guests in a chandelier-lit tent on the South Lawn – the glassware is rented.
“It’s like going to the Met Gala in a Rent the Runway gown,” said one person, who formerly worked in the White House social secretary’s office. “Here you are at the White House, but you’re drinking from glasses you could get from the local caterer. Some people don’t think it’s a big deal, but some people really, really do.”
A tradition put on hold
The design of presidential crystal, much like presidential china, is a hallmark of the aesthetic of a particular administration.
First lady Florence Harding picked wine and champagne glasses, made in West Virginia, with a gold dragon motif wrapped around an “H.” Eleanor Roosevelt ordered glasses with an engraved American eagle insignia. Kennedy’s were minimalist, nothing etched. Patricia Nixon’s family set of glassware was made in France and featured a Chantilly pattern.
The designs of this little-known and understood presidential tradition of decorative items “gifted” to the White House collection often heralds back to a touchstone of a president’s origin story. For instance, the Obama china features bands of “Kailua Blue,” a nod to Barack Obama’s Hawaiian roots.
However, it has now been decades since a full set of crystal has been commissioned in a similar fashion.
McLaurin said it is the job of the historical association to locate need and to advise an incoming first lady’s office of what it may want to consider as a legacy item.
“It is not our role to say, ‘Do this, do that.’ That is up to the first lady and her team,” said McLaurin. “We have worked with 12 presidents since the Kennedys, and we naturally have a longer arc of knowledge as to what is needed, or what would be a good investment, but our role is not to criticize. We want to be supportive.”
The White House Historical Association is so supportive, in fact, that it picks up the tab for such things, with money supplied by private donors. It is the Historical Association that pays for presidential china collections or a new piece of art or the cost of recreating the rug in the Diplomatic Room, for example, which Melania Trump oversaw during her tenure, replacing the state seals around the border with the state flowers instead.
“The recent services have been made to mix and match with other services, creatively designing the patterns and colors so it would blend very well with other services in existence,” said McLaurin. “That enables first ladies and White House social secretaries to create different looks and feels.”
There is access to pre-modern-era china, however, if a first lady wants to do a historic deep dive while entertaining.
“If Dr. Biden wanted to use the Lincoln china, she could, in small numbers,” McLaurin said.
The association also acquires items that were once in the White House but were sold along the way. Before Jacqueline Kennedy established the association, and with it an official White House collection, previous presidencies would often pay for new items by selling old ones. Now, each piece permanently in the White House is part of the collection.
“Those requests come to us,” said McLaurin. “If a chair from the 1800s is located at an auction, for example, we would acquire it and bring it back. These are things Mrs. Kennedy wisely put in place as part of the association’s charter, things that might be uncomfortable to go to Congress for funding but are still needed. That’s where we come in.”
‘An easy get’
McLaurin, and the other people CNN spoke with about Melania Trump, are unsure why exactly she opted not to follow through with designing and acquiring new crystal.
“I’m sure all kinds of things are considered all the time by a first lady and her office,” said McLaurin, practicing the sort of congenial diplomacy one might expect from a person in his position, who has worked with several administrations. “We thought crystal would have been a needed item, and we would encourage any presidency to consider that, objectively.”
A person who worked with Trump told CNN that the discussion of donating a state set of crystal was run up the chain inside Trump’s East Wing and that the former first lady was aware of the conversation and the need – and that she was at one point even inspired to commission a handful of design options.
The tie-in for Trump was Slovenia. Not only is it the country of her birth, it is also one of the most recognized regions in the world for the manufacture of high-end glassware.
“(Trump) was aware there was no better supplier than Slovenia,” said the second person.
McLaurin agreed that the Slovenia angle would have been a nice touch.
“We would always encourage American products first. For the art and decorative arts and any other piece, we would like that to be American. So likewise, we would encourage glassware manufacturers to be American, but sometimes that’s not possible or feasible,” McLaurin said.
“With Mrs. Trump, some of the best crystal in the world could be made in Slovenia, and that is a nice connection to her history, her heritage. For it to be from Slovenia, it was a thought we had, but that would be just a thought. It’s not our role to go out and create and have it delivered,” he said.
The former first lady never got to put a china service into production, which isn’t all that unusual as most first ladies wait until a second term to do so. But the glassware, said another person who worked in the Trump administration, “would have been an easy get.”
Trump did do quite a few restoration projects in her four years as first lady, many of them not known to the public.
“She did a variety of things that contributed to the historic integrity of the White House,” McLaurin said, including the restoration and updating of all of the doors in the residence, on the State floor and the ground floor.
She also continued and finished overseeing the restoration of the Bellangé suite of furniture in the Blue Room, a project started by Michelle Obama. Trump also revamped the Red Room. The red walls were extremely faded on the western side of the room, due to sunlight, and Trump had them reupholstered in the original color match under the guidance of the White House curator and the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, a group of hand-picked unpaid experts that includes historians, museum and historic home curators and gallerists. The furnishings in the Red Room were also reupholstered and the draperies redone.
Whether Jill Biden will break the cycle of rented glasses for White House events has yet to be determined, but McLaurin said his hopes won’t be shattered if she, too, opts out of a stemware gift.
“We would say we are not lobbying for this at all, it is just a consideration we make. We want to be respectful of every first lady’s role,” he said. “And our role is to be supportive of the White House on behalf of the American people.”