Monday, October 19, 2009

Madeleine Albright and My Life in Junk Jewelry







(Okay, so I’ve missed my first self-imposed deadline! This was supposed to appear on the weekend. And instead of the “Crone Complaint” appearing on Monday, it will appear on Tuesdays. Hopefully by next week I’ll get the categories on the right weekdays!)


I recently learned about former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s new book “Read My Pins—Stories From a Diplomat’s Jewel Box”.

The description said: “Read My Pins is a story and celebration of how one woman’s jewelry collection was used to make diplomatic history. Exploring the use of the pin or brooch as a means of personal and diplomatic expression …(it] offers a whole new side of Secretary Albright.”

The New Yorker mentioned that, when diplomatic negotiations stalled, Albright might wear a jeweled turtle, or a contentious encounter would inspire a rhinestone bee or a crab pin. In Iraq she was called a serpent in the press, so she thought it was amusing to wear a snake pin “when we did Iraq things”.

I love that our distinguished Secretary of State did this, because I suspect that high-level male officials seldom signal their feelings, hopes and goals with their fashion choices, as women almost always do. (But I read that Bill Clinton would wear a special tie to signal Monica Lewinsky.)

So, inspired by Madeleine Albright, I pulled out a bureau drawer that has been collecting all sorts of costume jewelry over the past four decades. Even my brownie pin was in there, as well as some TWA plastic “junior crewmember” pins from the days when children would be taken into the cockpit to meet the pilots. (Nowadays you can’t even congregate near the cockpit door!)

I found my sorority and Phi Beta Kappa pins and the charm bracelet my parents gave me with charms for various high school accomplishments. The day after graduation I left on a student trip to Europe where I collected a silver charm in each city—silver beer stein, Arc de Triomphe, Tyrolean bell, etc.

I felt like an archaeologist digging through that drawer. I’ve never been much of a jewelry person, even though my husband has bought me beautiful pieces over the years, including a gold necklace with a Greek coin of Alexander the Great from 300 B.C. But wearing expensive pieces makes me nervous—I think I’m going to lose them—so the good jewelry usually lives in a bank safe deposit box.

My mother only wore silver—to go with her trademark silver hair. I have a number of deco-style pins of hers as well as a miniature silver spoon. In the 1930’s, when a bride chose a sterling flatware pattern, she would be given a matching pin. I opened a small jewel box of hers, lined with velvet, and found her gold thimble and a small ornate silver cigarette holder. The box still smelled like her—Arpege perfume and cigarette smoke—although she’s been gone for 25 years. And I found her hat pins-- long, lethal-looking, each topped with a pearl or semi-precious stone.

She and I both had birthdays in early February so we often gave each other our birth stone, amethyst. In one tiny box I found an ornate amethyst lavaliere with a note: “This was given to me by Joanie in August 1980—it is to be returned to her. Martha Paulson”.

I think you can tell that neither my mother nor I ever threw anything away—but unlike me, she had everything organized and labeled.

The most valuable jewelry my mother left me was a brooch of giant rhinestones made by Eisenberg. She wore it when she had her portrait painted, and I wear it whenever I need some serious 1940’s style glamour and bling.

I found a large sunburst necklace made of beads and seeds bought for a dollar through a bus window in Morocco in 1968 when I was still in my semi-hippie phase. There was a gold brooch of a sailing ship bought in Switzerland when my husband and I completed a book about Greek ship owners in 1975.

I found a little gold Aztec -looking figure of a man with a tiny emerald in his chest which my husband brought back from Colombia while researching the narcotics trade for The New York Times. He said that emeralds improve the changes of becoming pregnant. It worked. And during a long-ago memorial service for Nick’s mother Eleni in his mountainous village, he looked on the ground and found a small, perfectly heart- shaped stone. He had it set in gold with “My love always” engraved on the back. I think that’s my favorite piece.

Eighteen years ago a friend who has a birthday close to mine gave me a silver and turquoise pin of a wide-eyed man holding his arms up (“thinking ‘Oh My God, I’m fifty!’” she said.)

Because I collect hands, my children often give me hand jewelry-- from Greece, Israel, India, and places I can’t even remember.

I discovered a flamboyant beaded collar or ruff that I bought in Mexico and never had the nerve to wear. (I can’t carry off dramatic jewelry very well.) On a piece of string I discovered a smiling Toltec god’s head made of clay that was put around my neck by Indian children while we celebrated the spring solstice and the vanilla harvest among the pyramids of El Tajin, Veracruz, Mexico. As the pyramids came to life at night with colored lights, and the indigenous people sang and danced, it was like time-traveling back to an era long before the Spanish came.

I’m very big on good luck charms, figuring a little protection can’t hurt—so I’ve been known to wear my little orange figure of the Hindu god Ganesh and the Om symbol on the same chain as a Greek “evil eye” charm. And in my trip to India this year, I went crazy buying “tribal jewelry”—hammered silver cuffs and necklaces picturing the Hindu gods. Now I need the courage to wear those dramatic pieces out in public, as Madeleine Albright did every day when she was representing the American people.

My archeological dig into my costume jewelry has left me with two resolutions: I’m going to try to wear these souvenirs of my life more often. And when my daughters come home for Thanksgiving, I’m going to let the them choose which ones they want, while I can still remember the stories that go with each piece.

3 comments:

ann said...

great post. Makes me want to go through my jewelry box too!

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