Sunday, July 7, 2013

Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat's Jewel Box by Madeleine Albright (review)

While America doesn't have any crown jewels and our politicians may wear a token flag pin when it suits them, jewelry can nonetheless be used as a form of communication.  Madeleine Albright found that a well-chosen pin could say volumes as she navigated the delicate international waters as the Secretary of State from 1997-2001. Her book, Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat's Jewel Box, is a quick look at her colorful and symbolic collection of brooches and pins.

More of an illustrated memoir than autobiography, this coffee table book offers some fantastic recollections from Albright's adventures and beautiful photos of her pins.  This formidable lady has hundreds, if not thousands, of pins!  What started as an alternative to wearing necklaces turned into her signature style as a diplomat (this is a brief photo tour that gives you a taste of her collection). It was fascinating to read how much thought she put into the message her jewelry could communicate -- a sun for hopeful negotiations, doves for peace, spiders for a touch of deviousness.

What impresses me about Albright's collection is that on the whole, her brooches are inexpensive.  They're culled from estate sales, gift shops, antique stores, and bargain boutiques.  Most of the pricy pieces (real gemstones, precious metals) were given as gifts by foreign dignitaries, but mostly they're the kind of pins that you can find without breaking your wallet.  I'm sure the collection as a whole is now deemed priceless by the Smithsonian, but individually, her pins are affordable and accessible. 

I love the swallow pin!
Contrary to my own personal style, Albright also doesn't take her pins seriously.  I was struck by the playfulness of her pieces -- seahorses, beetles, kangaroos, turtles, crabs, shooting stars, a flying saucer.  They display a whimsy that is fun and joyful.  Of course, she has a host of stern-looking eagles and even a rocket launcher to counter, but the point of wear what you like is still well taken. 

I picked up this book up from the library because I love pins.  Some women expect diamonds and gold as gifts, an expensive engagement ring, or a pretty bauble on every birthday.  You'll find none of this with me.  What I relish is a beautiful antique pin.   

It started with my great-grandmother Nellie Bell.  She passed away when I was in grade school, so my memories of her are pretty limited.  I'm not even clear on how this pin found its way to me, only that I've loved it since the moment I laid eyes on it. 

Includes matching clip-on earrings
As a kid, I never dreamed of wearing this pin.  Pins were cheesy and old-fashioned, so not cool.  Nonetheless, this flower pin stayed in my jewelry box until I had the good sense to wear it on a whim during my first year of teaching.  Suddenly, a plain black shirt had elegance and people would stop to compliment me on my exquisite pin.  I mean, when you get an 18-year-old student to say you have a pretty pin, you're on to something.   

Since then, I've slowly added to my pin collection.  These have been found exclusively at antique stores or flea markets by myself and others who are excellent gift givers.  None are over $20.  I prefer organic shapes and flowers in rhinestones or basic metals.  I shy away from anything that might be deemed as cheesy, which is far too easy to stray into when combing through drawers of junk jewelry.  

The middle pin Mike got me for Christmas this past year (doesn't he have good taste!) and the blue rhinestone one a coworker found for me.  The rest I've snagged from antique stores.

The pin on the left is one of my favorites - a friend found it for $3 and I wear it all the time.
My latest addition.  Need to find a way to turn the earrings into pins without ruining the original setting.

As I was digging through my jewelry box to take these pictures, it dawned on me that I had a "secondary" collection of pins from my college days: 
  • Starting my freshman year, I was a member of Tau Beta Sigma, a greek service organization for band, and wore my membership pin on many occasions.  
  • I wore a yellow ribbon pin on my marching band uniform in support of Mike, much to the silent chagrin of my director.
  • My marching band hat also had a pin that was a replica of the university seal, which was given to me when I graduated as a senior.  
  • I later joined an English honor society (Sigma Tau Delta) and added another pin.  
 These I all wore on my stole when I graduated with my masters
And if Mike wouldn't kill me for taking a picture of them, I would love to show you all of the military ribbons he's earned over the years.  But alas, Captain America doesn't want any recognition for his military service, poo on him. (HEY! I signed up before 9/11/01. That means I was one of the last actual volunteers before everyone got all 'I want to deploy and blow up a foreign country' and decided that joining the Air Force was better than going to college. It was a job and I did it. :P)

Much like Albright, I find that even my very small collection is made special by the stories and personal connections.  There's a certain history associated with each piece that doesn't come with the clearance sale necklace from a department store.  They also spark conversation because pins are still an unusual fashion accessory when traveling for business, going to work, or out on a date. 

Albright was in office through my junior and high school years, and in truth, I know very little about her or her achievements.  While I wished Read My Pins had more to actually read, it was a great introduction to a piece of political Americana.  Her collection is now at the Czech National Museum, which I drive by every day.  I can't wait to see these pins in person!

Do you have any special pieces of jewelry?  Do you collect anything?