Read My Jewelry - Jewelry with a Voice and Visibility
January 29, 2017
Originally, this post was going to be exclusively about the book, "Read My Pins" and the remarkable exhibition at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. There is much to say -- a lot more -- about how jewelry can make powerful statements for the wearer, to the viewer, or from the maker.
As a jeweler, jewelry maker, metalsmith, jewelry collector and avid fan of all kinds of jewelry, I believe in the power of jewelry to express insights, emotions, and meaning far beyond the initial perceptions of beauty and craftsmanship. "Read My Pins" excels in such revelations showing how Madeleine Albright used an expansive repertoire of her pins to convey diverse signals such as cooperation, dissatisfaction, special interests, sympathy, cultural awareness, or common cause throughout her career. Much more on this amazing exhibition below.
But let me start with a contrasting message that came to my attention this weekend to consider even more seriously the power of jewelry to convey a message.
The cover photo of the February 2017 issue of Vanity Fair Mexico shows Melania Trump "eating jewelry." What does this say to you? How do you think the Mexican readers should interpret the image?
The message seems to be simply about conspicuous consumption and extravagant surplus. Clearly, the First Lady of the United States is pleased to show her privilege and position. Unfortunately at the same time 50% of Mexicans live in poverty and there is a struggling U.S. middle class that is less than 4 months from economic ruin. This image parallels an infamous historical quote, "Let them eat cake."
Compare this to the empowering messages of jewelry in the book and exhibition "Read My Pins." The exhibition displayed pins and dramatic brooches worn my Madeline Albright during her tenure as Secretary of State. To a feminist metalsmith I must remind myself (and anyone reading this post) that Madeline Albright was the first woman Secretary of State and the highest female official in U.S. Government at that time.
Every pin in this exhibit could initiate a conversation about the power of jewelry to communicate a message. Madeline Albright used these pins and brooches for such purposes very effectively for years.
I loved the exhibition "Read My Pins" for many reasons. The entire exhibition was crowded with energy, enthusiasm, and thought provoking themes. Over and over, the intrinsic value of the materials was irrelevant. The "real" value was always based on the message and the context.
This Atlas pin (below) holds the weight of the world -- symbolic of the United States role in many turbulent political situations in this world. What message could be more important when worn by the U.S. Secretary of State and remains ever present in my mind during the past week.
Atlas Pin purchased by Madeline Albright in Paris. No attribution to the maker. (Photo from the exhibition)
A brooch could represent a concept (e.g. "sting like a bee") in an international negotiation. Quoting Madeline Albright "I believe the right symbol at the correct time can add warmth or needed edge to a relationship." In the photo (right) Albright negotiates with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
The pin (left) was from the Suffrage Movement. "The green, white and violet colors of the gemstones and pearls signify, respectively, hope, purity and dignity. The first letter of each word, (GWV) suggests an apt acronym: "Give Women the Vote' ."
Jewelry can send an important political message empowering women to stand up and be counted in marches demanding the vote and social change. (Quotes are from the description labels from Legion of Honor exhibition.)
Both the "Read My Pins" exhibition and book provide an important insight into the voice of jewelry. Jewelry can be important in so many ways. The message can be ennobling, enabling, even empowering such as in the next pin with an eagle and dove asserting both strength and a passion for peace.
Jewelry can also have emotional resonance. Quoting the museum label: "In 2006, on a visit to New Orleans, post-Hurricane Katrina, Albright was approached by a young man who gave her a small box. 'My mother loved you,' he explained, ' and she knew that you liked and wore pins. My father gave her this one for their sixtieth wedding anniversary. She died as a result of Katrina, and my father and I think she would have wanted you to have it. It would be an honor to her if you would accept it.' "
"Albright wears the Katrina pin as a reminder that jewelry's greatest value comes not from intrinsic materials or brilliant designs but from the emotions we invest in them. The most cherished attributes are not those that dazzle the eye but those that recall to mind the face and spirit of a loved one."
This brooch of fused "shattered" glass (designer unknown) reflected the "shattering of a glass ceiling," a significant milestone for all women and reflecting support for another woman Secretary of State - Hillary Clinton. Women in our country are not reaching the heights of leadership (corporate or political) in proportion to our share in the population.
The communication power of jewelry often aligns with social change. In the movie, "Hidden Figures" the painful realities of discrimination against women and African-Americans -- or both -- in the early 1960's are presented in this powerful story. In one scene, a simple pearl necklace symbolizes the growing awareness, acceptance, and empowerment of one of the female figures.
The "Read My Pins" exhibition and book are engaging, fun, educational, and thought provoking. Each piece opened new doors or revealed new humanizing insights or highlights on topics familiar from newsreels but often distant and foreign. I enjoyed almost every aspect.
For the contemporary craft world, I was a bit disappointed that so many of the pieces had no attribution to the maker and that so few contemporary makers were represented.
Many of the pins in the exhibition were antique or vintage collectibles, essentially manufactured costume jewelry. Lack of attribution is typical of such consumer products, but there was a significant number of obviously hand made pins purchased or given to Madeline Albright in foreign countries or purchased in the 20th century.
Many of the 20th century pins had no maker attributed to the work. What a shame? Would a painter sell their paintings without a name or initials on the front or back? To every maker reading this post, be sure to mark your jewelry (or other media) in some way.
My second disappointment with the Madeline Albright collection is the lack of contemporary jewelry. I am thrilled to say there were pins by Helen Shirk ( left,) Carolyn Morris Bach (below right) and Gjis Bakker (cover of book), but not many other examples of jewelry by a contemporary hand. And even a smaller number of examples of contemporary jewelry with the maker's name.
ADDENDUM July 2018
In a comment below, Leonda brought to my attention the jewelry worn by Queen Elizabeth during the three-day visit by Trump. I have added images to this blog post to show this jewelry.
As thousands of people demonstrated against President Trump in the UK, Queen Elizabeth II seemed to make a statement of her own by wearing a brooch given as a gift by former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.
(Left photo) While welcoming Trump for tea, the 92-year-old monarch donned a palm leaf diamond brooch famously worn by her mother at the state funeral for the Queen’s father, King George VI, in 1952.
Snowflake Brooch was given by Canadian people and Trudeau to Queen Elizabeth to mark 65 years on the throne. Trudeau has sharply criticized Trump. This was worn the day after meeting Trump.
Get the book Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat's Jewel Box from your local library or bookstore. It has a background for a good number of Madeline Albright pins, and it is very interesting.
Think about the power of jewelry and the voice that can resonate so much about our politics and social change.
This post was updated on December 13th, 2021.