Published: May 8, 2012
Blame it on†or, more accurately, credit it to †Saddam Hussein. In 1994, when US Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright criticized the Iraqi dictator, his poet-in-residence responded by calling her an “unparalleled serpent.”
Shortly thereafter, preparing to meet with Iraqi officials, Albright decided to make a diplomatic statement by wearing a serpent pin purchased years earlier at the Tiny Jewel Box, a favorite Washington shop. “It’s a small piece,” she explained, “showing the reptile coiled around a branch, a tiny diamond hanging from its mouth.” She admitted she did not consider the gesture a “big deal and doubted that the Iraqis even made the connection,” but others noticed and asked why she had chosen to wear that particular pin. “I smiled,” the ambassador recalled, “and said that it was my way of sending a message.”
For a meeting with Hussein himself one time, Albright thought she might put the formidable tyrant, whose name means “lion” in Arabic, in a “forthcoming mood” by wearing a bejeweled lion pin by Kenneth Jay Lane. “It didn’t,” she found.
At one point in her stint at the United Nations, she started the day wearing a pin of a bluebird soaring upward. But when news reached her that Cuban fighter pilots had shot down, without warning, two civilian aircraft over international waters between Florida and Cuba, killing three American citizens, she wore the bird pin pointing downward, in “mourning,” when she denounced the cowardly deed at a news conference. The harshness of her words and the symbolism of the bird headed down drove home her sentiments with undiplomatic bluntness.
Thereafter, and carrying over to her service as secretary of state, pins became part of what Albright calls her “personal diplomatic arsenal.” She recalls that just as former President George H.W. Bush was known for saying “Read my lips,” she began urging colleagues and reporters to “Read my pins.”
Albright cautions about overstating the impact of a piece of jewelry, but adds that she believes “the right symbol at the correct time can add warmth or needed edge to a relationship.” Albright notes that foreign dignitaries were happier to see her wearing a “bright shining sun” than a “menacing wasp.” She observes that all her predecessors were men, and, therefore, her use of “pins with attitude” to send messages was “something new in American diplomacy.” She also recalls a friend’s comment that “the only real difference between a human being and other mammals is our ability to accessorize.”
The saga of Albright’s trove of symbolic brooches and how she used them for diplomatic purposes is beautifully showcased in “Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection,” on view at the Denver Art Museum through June 17. Organized by the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City, the exhibition ends an eight-venue tour in Denver. (When her family gained political asylum in the United States after the Communist takeover of her native Czechoslovakia, Albright lived in Denver, where her father, a former diplomat, taught at the University of Denver.) The show is accompanied by Albright’s surprisingly zesty book on the subject.
Albright’s collection, spanning more than 150 years of jewelry design all over the world, is at once distinctive and democratic, sometimes benign and understated, sometimes confrontational and outspoken. As chief curator David Revere McFadden of the Museum of Arts and Design observes, “There is a delightful randomness and whimsy to the pins that make up this highly personal assemblage.” He notes that the pieces were acquired from sources ranging from “jewelry stores and art galleries to airport souvenir stands and the booths of craft fair vendors.”
Unlike most jewelry collections, Albright’s is not focused on the value of the materials nor the virtuosity of the craftsmanship. Notes McFadden, her pins are mostly “unremarkable in their monetary value” and “likely to be by anonymous designers, and fabricated from materials ranging from base metals to plastics and glass.” Albright’s “pins of the people,” he adds, “became gentle implements of statecraft.”
In the limelight as America’s UN ambassador, Albright devoted attention not only to her clothes, but to acquiring “new pins to make my clothes more interesting.” She found New York’s celebrated Pier Antiques Show was, for “seekers of high-quality costume jewelry,&⁴he equivalent of the Promised Land.” Searching for appropriate Americana, she combined an eagle brooch and an Uncle Sam’s hat, both by Trifari, for a patriotic look. For a meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il in 2000, the secretary of state wore one of her boldest American flag pins, adding, “To appear taller, I wore heels. So did he.”
A remarkable “Celebration of Freedom” pin by an unknown designer manages to attach to a soaring American eagle: the American flag, Statue of Liberty, Liberty Bell, a quarter and a penny, a baseball, a football, stars, an airplane, a saxophone, a flaming torch and the shield of the United States †all in a piece measuring a mere 2¾ by 2¼ inches.
Albright expresses a special appreciation for costume jewelry that “can delight the eye and still spare the pocketbook.” She started out assuming that, standing only 5 feet 2 inches, she should wear small pins, but soon began to buy no more costly “but bigger, bolder and sometimes even crazier pieces&⁉ found that the look I preferred was more on the dramatic side than the demure.” A bold example on view is an intricately interlaced “Colorful Bird” by Iradj Moini, with gold bands linking five different elements.
Among her firsts is Albright’s designation as America’s first female secretary of state. A pin in her collection, “Breaking the Glass Ceiling” by an unknown designer, shows “the glass ceiling in its ideal condition: shattered,” says Albright.
After becoming secretary of state, Albright’s time to browse for pins decreased, but due to her well-known “penchant for pins,&veryone started giving me pins,” she recalls. Fellow diplomats began presenting clever, symbolic jewelry. This widespread pin publicity gave a boost to the costume jewelry industry, especially in Paris.
During long, frustrating negotiations for Middle East peace, Albright often wore a dove, but when displeased with the pace of talks, she substituted a turtle, snail or, “when truly aggravated, a crab.” To deliver a “sharp message,” such as during extensive wrangling with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, she wore a bee, suggesting America’s will to strike back if necessary.
For friendly meetings with South African leader Nelson Mandela, Albright favored multiple zebra pins. If a “sunny attitude” was called for, Albright wore a favorite brooch of a “brilliantly shining sun.”
Another set of pins grew out of a joke, when, during a meeting among Defense Sectary William Cohen, President Bill Clinton and Albright, each mugged for an official photographer with hands clamped over ears, mouth and eyes, respectively. Soon Albright acquired “Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, See No Evil” pins in Brussels, and wore them when Russian President Vladimir Putin denied seeing any evil in his heavy-handed crackdown on Chechnyan rebels. For negotiations with Russians about changes in the antiballistic missile treaty, the secretary of state pointedly wore an arrowlike “Interceptor Missile” pin.
Since leaving office as secretary of state in 2001, Albright has continued to involve herself in a variety of world affairs projects and enjoys “now more than ever, wearing and collecting pins.” In public appearances, hosts expect the former diplomat to wear a suitable pin. Addressing a Gemological Institute of America symposium in 2006 Albright sported a particularly dramatic pin with a dragon wrapped around a sword.
Out of government, Albright is less concerned with the diplomatic symbolism of her jewelry and can indulge her personal preferences. In addition to patriotic works, these include butterflies, frogs, insects, dragonflies, spiders, songbirds, flowers and especially big bugs †”The kind that seem poised to leap from my jacket.” She seems to know the historic associations and symbolic meaning of each piece in the culture in which it originated. Among her assorted insect pins, which she calls “environmental advocates” and wears at occasions such as Earth Day, are a “Grasshopper” by Landau, a “Cicada” and “Fly with Pearl” by Iradj Moini, a “Green Ladybug” by Sandor Co., “Two Blue Horseflies” by an unknown designer and a resplendent “Green, Purple and Blue Beetle” by Kenneth Jay Lane.
Assorted standouts include a wonderfully over-the-top “Bejeweled Mickey” from Disney Enterprises, Inc.; a stern “Wise Owl” and an endearing “Polar Bear” by Lea Stein; “Eagle Dancer,” a bolo tie made into a pin of sterling silver, turquoise and coral by Jerry Roan, and Tiffany & Co.’s “Sheaf of Wheat,” with 18K yellow gold shafts held together by a diamond-studded platinum ribbon.
The most intriguing piece on view is a contemporary silver brooch showing the head of Lady Liberty, whose eyes are formed by two watch faces, one of which is upside down. Designed expressly for Albright by Gijs Bakker of the Netherlands, it permits Albright to look down at the pin to see when it is time for an appointment to end, while her visitor can look at the brooch for the same purpose.
As a kind of coda, Albright tells about a “pin that is in a category by itself.” In 2006, after touring the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, La., she spoke there at the D-Day Museum. At the reception that followed, a young man presented her with a small box with a pin inside. He explained that his late mother, who perished in Katrina, “loved” Albright and that he and his father thought she “would have wanted you to have it.” Albright, not given to speechlessness or tears, was “pushed&⁴o the brink” by the gesture. It turned out the bearer’s father, a twice-wounded World War II veteran, had been married for 62 years.
Albright calls the pin, a flower composed of amethysts and diamonds, the “Katrina” pin, and wears it “as a reminder that jewelry’s greatest value comes not from intrinsic materials or brilliant designs but from the emotions we invest. The most cherished attributes are not those that dazzle the eye but those that recall to the mind the face and spirit of a loved one.”
Those words pretty well capture the spirit of this highly personal and entertaining exhibition. While each object on view has its own appeal, each takes on added meaning when its back story is told. Madeline Albright has assembled her collection wisely, and told its story entertainingly, making this a most rewarding show.
Albright’s 176-page, illustrated book, Read My Pins; Stories From a Diplomat’s Jewel Box, authored with the help of Elaine Shocas, Vivienne Becker and Bill Woodward, serves as an exhibition catalog. Albright writes in a refreshingly breezy, frank manner about the history of pins as jewelry and various adventures her pins encountered as implements of statecraft. Published by Melcher Media, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, it sells for $40, hardcover.
The Denver Art Museum is on 13th Avenue between Broadway and Bannock Streets. For information, www.denverartmuseum.org or 720-865-5000.
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