By Nancy McKeon
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, who died on Wednesday at age 84, was a survivor of wartorn Europe. As such, she roved the world with wary eyes, always on the lookout for countries behaving badly. After her long tenure—first as US Ambassador to the UN, then as the first female US Secretary of State, 1997 to 2001—she wrote, she taught, she attended celebrations and benefits.
She also wore jewelry, pins to be precise. And in fact she developed a whole diplomatic language around her collection, a combination of costume pieces and valuable ones.
As she told it, her habit began when she was US Ambassador to the UN (1993 to 1997). She had criticized Saddam Hussein of Iraq, which caused Hussein’s poet-in-residence to call her “an unparalleled serpent.” At a subsequent meeting with Iraqi officials, Albright addressed the offense by not addressing it directly: She trimmed the lapel of her suit jacket with a 19th-century serpent pin of 18-karat gold with a diamond dripping from its mouth.
You wanted a serpent? You got one.
When she was prepared to be waspish in an encounter, there it was on her lapel, a wasp pin. There were playful pins as well, and plenty of flora and fauna. Some were fun, some sent messages, and many became part of American diplomacy, certainly, at least, an ice breaker in conversations.
Albright’s collection was showcased in her 2009 book, Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box. The collection is currently on loan to the National Museum of American Diplomacy and will be donated to the museum when the galleries are complete. The pins circulated to museums around the country from 2009 to 2018, thanks to Elaine Shocas, Albright’s chief of staff at State, who was also behind the book.
Meanwhile, there’s an absorbing online exhibit of Albright’s pins at the museum’s site, filled with gorgeous pictures and little tales here and there about a long life that began in Europe, found a home in the US, and then roamed the world, always with a sharp eye, sometimes with a sharp tongue and usually with an appropriate piece of jewelry.
This 19th-century serpent started the whole collection, with its sly language. / From the exhibit at the National Museum of American Diplomacy. Pin photography by John Bigelow Taylor and Dianne Dubler.
There are lots of animal pins in Albright’s collection, including the bold zebra perched on her shoulder during a 1997 meeting with South African President Nelson Mandela. / From the exhibit at the National Museum of American Diplomacy. Pin photography by John Bigelow Taylor and Dianne Dubler.
Frogs were a favorite, and why not? / From the exhibit at the National Museum of American Diplomacy. Pin photography by John Bigelow Taylor and Dianne Dubler.
Albright’s pins sometimes look lethal, such as this lavishly decorated sword with serpent, left, and sometimes teem with hope and lightness of spirit. Such is the case of this 18-karat white gold and diamond butterfly, right, which is about 3½ inches high and was a gift to Albright from the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. / From the exhibit at the National Museum of American Diplomacy. Pin photography by John Bigelow Taylor and Dianne Dubler.
Pins from Albright’s earlier years include, from left, her husband’s fraternity pin, a circle pin of gold and enamel, an alumnae leaf from Wellesley College, her alma mater, and the Sheaf of Wheat, a symbol of abundance and health, given to her upon her return to Georgetown University after serving as Secretary of State. / From the exhibit at the National Museum of American Diplomacy. Pin photography by John Bigelow Taylor and Dianne Dubler.
From Albright’s native Czechoslovakia come two Art Nouveau pins in sterling silver. The pin trimmed in coral beads was inspired by images from Alphonse Mucha, the famed early-20th-century Bohemian/Czech artist, most popularly known for his highly stylized Paris theater posters.
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