Read My Pins
As you know, at Alpha Female we believe that femininity is an advantage, and that it offers us facets of our personality we can exploit that men do not have in their corporate arsenal. Here is a perfect example; Madeleine Albright, the first female Secretary of State, used her jewellery to communicate the things she could not necessarily express in her diplomatic meetings.
AF is a non political site and this article does not expresses, hint or allude to the political views of the author. We wanted to put politics aside and celebrate this power dressing strategy. This article is written by our resident jewellery guru, Helen Starr, who has been collecting jewellery for many years and knows her way around the serious pieces.
Last November, (2009) on a cold, bright winter’s day I was lucky enough to visit a wonderful exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design in New York. The Museum had recently opened and I was excited to see their exhibition Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection.
The exhibition showcased a careful selection of Madeleine Albright’s pins. It paid particular attention to the historic significance of the jewellery she wore when on state visits. I was there to deepen my own knowledge about the expressive power of jewellery and its ability to communicate through a style and language of its own.
In 1997, Albright was named the first female Secretary of State and became, at that time, the highest ranking woman in the history of the US government. While serving under President Bill Clinton, first as US ambassador to the United Nations, and then as Secretary of State, Albright became known for wearing brooches that purposefully conveyed her views about the situation at hand.
I walked into the elegant, unpretentious foyer of the Museum of Art and Design and made my way up the staircase to the modestly sized gallery which held the display of more than 200 pins. The room I entered was unexpectedly crowded. It rang with the East Coast intonations of Vassar, Yale and Brown. These were not ladies who lunched - their well cut clothes hummed with power as they moved about the room jostling politely but firmly as they each took a turn to look at row upon row of beautifully lit brooches. Their own jewellery was spellbinding - not for them the generic rings and brooches by Tiffany - they had Angela Cummings for Tiffany circa 1978; rare pieces by Seaman Schepps caught my eye and I believe I even saw a 1950’s design of the iconic VCA buckle by Renee Puissant, the daughter of Alfred Van Cleef and Estelle Arpels.
I am an unashamed devotee of fine jewellery as were apparently many ladies in the room! However most of the preciously displayed pieces on these shelves were costume, and the gasps of delight were not drawn by the artistry of craftsmanship or rarity of the stones. Here was jewellery of the most valuable sort; it was laden with symbolic history.
Madeleine Albright’s interest in the power of jewellery as personal expression became newsworthy in the 1990s after the Iraqi press published a poem calling her an “unparalleled serpent” for daring to criticise Saddam Hussein. Facing a meeting with the Iraqis in October 1994, Albright dug through her jewellery and affixed a Victorian-era serpent pin to her suit. A reporter asked about the significance of the accessory, and Albright - then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations - replied that it was “just my way of sending a message”.
After that incident, Albright decided that it might be fun to speak through her pins. She went out and bought many different types of costume jewellery. The collection that Secretary Albright developed was sometimes demure and understated and sometimes - indeed most often - it was bold, authoritative and as clear as glacial water. It spanned a century of jewellery design and many of the pieces given as gifts came from all corners of the globe. "I found that jewellery had become part of my personal diplomatic arsenal", Secretary Albright has said. "While President George H.W. Bush had been known for saying 'Read my lips', I began urging colleagues and reporters to 'Read my pins.' "
It was a fortuitous move as there were many more occasions to either commemorate a particular event or to signal how she felt.
There were balloons from Swarovski (1992) to signify optimism and turtle pins to signify the slow progress of Middle Eastern diplomacy as well as the times she felt a little “snappy”. On days when Albright felt she had to do "a little stinging and deliver a tough message", she wore a wasp pin.
When the Russians were caught tapping the State Department, Albright’s comment was a pin with a giant bug on it. At one point, Russian leader Vladimir Putin told President Clinton that he knew what the mood of a meeting would be by looking at Albright's left shoulder. Albright's pin with three monkeys, which she wore when discussing Chechnya, was meant to draw attention to the fact that Russia took a "hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil" stance toward the Chechen atrocities.
Albright says she loved expressing herself with her jewels. And, she adds, making fashion statements and commenting on each other's attire is not completely unheard of within a diplomatic setting: "You think that the heads of state only have serious conversations, but they actually often begin really with the weather or, 'I really like your tie.' "
As my eyes wandered the shelves they were caught by a pin which I very much enjoyed. It was titled “Breaking the Glass Ceiling”, created in 1997. Albright certainly broke through the State Department’s ceiling thus securing a path for current Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and for Condoleezza Rice in the George W. Bush administration.
However hands down, my personal favourite was a pin called “Foxy Lady” by Leah Stein (1970). Albright has said that she wears this pin when she’s “having a lot of fun and doing a little flirting along the way”. Some claim that the fox's cleverest hunting technique is "charming". As it nears its target, the fox begins slyly performing various innocent-seeming antics, such as leaping, jumping, rolling and chasing itself. Slowly and carefully the fox draws closer to its now riveted prey. Then at the right moment, it leaps and captures its unsuspecting victim. According to both Native American and Druidic belief, fox medicine involves adaptability, cunning, observation, integration, swiftness of thought and action and diplomacy. Foxy Lady indeed!
The snake pin featured in this article is available from Nick Silver, email him here for enquiries: email@example.com
Details: lapis snake brooch, USA, 1980's. A stylish brooch designed as a snake entwined around a large oval of lapis lazuli. The snake is set with ruby eyes and the body composed of 198 fancy vivid yellow diamonds weighing approximately 7.92 carats in total. The brooch is marked with '750' for 18ct gold, and a cats head poincon. Made by Carvin French, American, New York.