Friday, July 20, 2012

History, on the head of a pin

Other than a wedding ring, I have never worn a single piece of jewelry in my adult life. (Even my watch goes in my pocket.) Displaying a beautiful arrangement of precious stones to me is like showing a Matisse to a mule: My ignorant eyes glaze over in about 20 seconds. So I was surprised how much I enjoyed Perry's Pin-tastic Exhibit, which runs through Sept. 23 in the store at 6525 Morrison Blvd.

The Perry's staff was inspired by "Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection," an exhibit at the Mint Museum running through the same date. In fact, Perry's created a diamond brooch for the former U.S. Secretary of State and gave it to her when the Mint exhibit opened. But the pins in Perry's collection go back long before Albright's political career.

They're arranged chronologically, roughly from Queen Victoria's heyday (the period before her beloved Prince Albert died in 1861) through the 1980s. Most came into Perry's collection via estate sales, so we'll never know what inspired someone to create a pin decorated with a photo of a stern Edwardian gentleman, his regal mustache flowing. (And who outside his family would wear it?)

Compact, well-written wall placards explain the periods and styles thoroughly, but the jewels tell their own stories. Onyx, jet and black enamel dominate Victoria's 40-year period of mourning;  architectural shapes -- arches, pagodas, skyscrapers -- influence the art deco period of the 1920s and '30s; a cocky little jaybird flies out of the prosperous 1980s.

These are all pieces of jewelry for women, ranging in price from a couple of hundred dollars to mid-five-figure amounts. Looking them over, we see what expectations men had for women or women had for themselves. The demure cameos of the 19th century tell us women were expected to be quietly lovely, perhaps even educated in classical subjects: (One micromosaic depicts Greek temple ruins.)

Some pins speak in code: Daisies stood for innocence, violets for modesty, pansies for thoughts of a loved one. Jewelry woven from human hair indicated fidelity, either to a lover (when attached to a ring), the memory of a dead family member (a bracelet) or -- well, I wasn't sure what to make of the hair attached to a small cross. Dedication to Jesus, I guess, the way nuns are sometimes called brides of Christ.

Women of Edith Wharton's time, who wrapped dresses across their bodies, were expected to wear heavy shoulder pins that would test the stamina of an Olympic swimmer. Flappers allowed no such weight to impede them by the Jazz Age. By our own era, large and exotic shapes were in fashion again; animals, whether cuddly or crawly, proliferated in lighter pieces that might be popped onto a sweater or blouse.

The jewelry doesn't come with identification, so we don't know the story of the pomaded gent who stares gravely from one of the earlier brooches. We're left to imagine who he was, why he wanted to portray himself this way, or what made his descendants decide to put him on the market. The exhibit reminds us how mortal we all are, even if we try to immortalize ourselves on the head of a pin.