Sometimes, jewelry is more than a personal expression. In Madeleine Albright’s case, it packs a political punch. The former secretary of state and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations became so noted for the brooches she wore during meetings with world leaders in the 1990s that officials would analyze her mood based on the type of pin she decided to wear. If butterflies or balloons decorated her suits, all was fine. If she was wearing a bee or bug, beware. Turtles? They might indicate talks were going too slow ... or needed to slow down. The bigger her flag pin, the more she meant to underscore her belief in the strength of American democracy versus the system of the country she was visiting. (Take that, North Korea and then-leader Kim Jong-il.)
It all started in 1994 when Albright was ambassador and the Iraqi press referred to her as an “unparalleled serpent” for her criticism of Saddam Hussein. She happened to own a gold pin with a snake on it, which she then took to wearing when meeting with the Iraqis.
“Before long, and without intending it, I found that jewelry had become part of my personal diplomatic arsenal,” she writes in “Read My Pins, Stories From a Diplomat’s Jewel Box.” (Harper Collins, 2009). The book serves as a catalog to an exhibition of Albright’s jewelry that has been touring American museums since 2009. The show opens today at the Denver Art Museum, and it’s a homecoming of sorts for Albright, who spent most of her teen years in Denver.
“The reason I did the exhibit was because I like to talk about foreign policy, and the pins make it less foreign,” Albright said in an interview recently.
“This is not the ego trip of a jewelry maniac,” she said. “Invariably whenever I’ve done this I meet with students and talk about my travels and international relations.” she said.
Yet the exhibit is also a revealing look at Albright’s life, told through her jewelry, says Melora McDermott-Lewis, director of education for the museum. “The show presents a very human, personable woman.”
Among the photos is a shot of Madeleine when she was a student at Kent Denver School, where she started the first international relations club. Her father, Josef Korbel, sought asylum in the United States in 1949 when his native Czechoslovakia was overtaken by Communists. He moved the family from Prague to New York, then Denver, where he taught in the international affairs department at the University of Denver. Madeleine attended school in Denver until going to college at Wellesley.
From her college years, the exhibit includes such items as the fraternity pin her husband-to-be, Joe Albright, gave her during the summer of her sophomore and junior years, when she was an intern at The Denver Post. Women didn’t buy their own baubles; they were expected to get them as gifts from men, she said.
But years later, she developed a fondness for collecting pins and learned that in the world of politics and diplomacy, her brooches served as both an icebreaker and a way to communicate her mood.
“Women in the workforce then all looked like men, wearing dark suits and scarves that looked like ties,” she said. “I thought it was fun to wear suits of different colors, and pins, because it was a conversation opener.”
And when she learned her pins could be exploited for political purposes, she was eager to play. “It became a game to find pins to match what was going on. For instance, I had a spider web and put one little spider outside of the web to show the alliance could expand.”
It was also a gift she could give and receive — convenient in diplomatic circles. Many treasured ones were such a present: she got the Order of the White Lion pin from Czech president Vaclav Havel in 1997.
Albright’s diplomatic travels allowed her to collect pins all over the world. Favorite shopping spots are a souk in Istanbul and flea markets worldwide. She said she also likes driving from Denver to Aspen each summer because she can stop in places like Georgetown or Carbondale to browse in stores. “Most of my collection is costume jewelry, but some are older and antiques,” she said.
One pin that was a splurge is a diamond-studded gold eagle with a pearl drop she saw in a Washington, D.C., store, Tiny Jewel Box. She loved the antique piece, but balked at the price. Shortly thereafter, she was named secretary of state and decided the purchase was in order. But on the day of her swearing in, she neglected to secure the pin’s complicated clasp. What was she thinking at the time? “My attention was divided between the drama of the moment and the possibility that my pin would fall off, landing on the floor in front of President Clinton and the assembled cameras.”
Pictures from the moment show the pin hanging sideways. She corrected matters later when she wore it for the cover shot of her memoir.
The pin exhibition is full of such stories, and shows a woman unafraid to laugh at herself. She also revealed that her clothes are full of holes caused by her pins and said that her pins have gotten progressively larger through the years — in part to cover those holes.
While 200 of her pins continue to travel, Albright has a backup supply. “We laid them all out on a white sheet on my bed when deciding what to put in the exhibit,” she said. “It was a little embarrassing because I do have a lot.
“But they all have a story.”