On a trip to South Africa a couple years ago, I ran into one of my tour companions in a famous jewelry store in Johannesburg. She had evidently been there quite a while pondering the purchase of a pair of truly magnificent, and expensive, yellow diamond earrings. “Can I wear these with jeans and flip-flops?” she asked me, indicating her current attire. “Sure,” I said. “Why not?” Thus affirmed in a decision I’m sure she had already made, she bought the earrings, immediately put them on, and happily flip-flopped out of the store.
People, even “women of a certain age,” just don’t dress up much anymore. And they surely don’t wear brooches. Brooches demand a certain dressiness, a jacket or scarf or bodice on which to pin them, whereas other pieces, such as rings or watches, or even diamond earrings, more easily adapt.
Since ancient times, jewelry has been not only an instrument of enhancement, but also a public statement of wealth, status, and position — which is exactly how the term “statement piece” originated. Royalty has always used jewels as symbols: think of all those scepters and crowns. In more modern days, jewelry has become a common symbol of recognition or special occasions, i.e., the engagement ring or a gold watch. Even those who aren’t rich and famous can enjoy famous pieces. Liz Taylor’s 33 carat diamond from Richard Burton or Princess Diana’s diamond-encircled sapphire, for example, have become so iconic and so desirable that they are reproduced at every price point and available to everyone from tony shoppers on Rodeo Drive to home shoppers on QVC.
One of the highlights of our recent trip to Southern California was happening on a special exhibition at the Reagan Presidential Library: “Read My Pins” is a display of over 200 signature brooches, most of them costume quality, owned and worn by Madeline Albright. Those who are old enough to remember her will recall that her lapel jewelry began to be remarked upon when she was part of President Clinton’s cabinet as our Ambassador to the UN (1993-97), later becoming more noticeable, and more of a diplomatic “messaging” tool, when she became our first female Secretary of State (1997-2001). (My own copy of her “spiderweb with spider” pin is shown above.) In her illustrated memoir, Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box, we not only learn about the origins of many of these brooches and their key roles in moments of diplomatic history, but we also learn about the Secretary, about her humor and humanity, and her evolution into a confident, independent leader.
The jewelry a woman wears says a lot about her, not only about her personal taste and style, but about how she views herself. Once upon a time, the jewels a woman wore said more about the wealth and prestige of the man who gave them to her, and his view of her, than it did about the woman herself. An old wives’ tale warns that “…if a woman buys herself diamonds, she’ll never get them from a man.” That warning may have had merit back when women were little more than chattel and dependent on men for both their net worth and their self-worth, but it’s hardly relevant now. Today’s women, single or married or divorced, are accomplished, independent, and affluent enough to buy their own jewelry and make their own statements. They celebrate their commitment to themselves and are not shy about sporting the rewards to prove it.
The word brooch has its origins in the Latin word broccus , which mean “projecting.” Madeline Albright used her brooches in ways true to the intention of the word. Through them, she was able to project hope, to protest frustration, to communicate pride in herself and respect for others. In an international diplomatic community still dominated by men, she made a statement and became a presence through something so entirely feminine as a pin.
Sometimes the strongest statements are the subtle ones.