For generations, Americans have worn their national pride on their sleeves -- and on their lapels, in the form of flag pins. It's a tradition worth celebrating, particularly now as the banner's birthday, June 14, approaches. Costume jewelry flag pins were produced primarily during the World Wars, and are found in a variety of styles, from humble to extravagant. Their diversity attracts collectors such as Kit Hinrichs, coauthor of "Long May She Wave: A Graphic History of the American Flag" (Ten Speed Press; 2001) and owner of the pins on these pages. "It's tremendous to see all the ways in which Americans have interpreted, reinterpreted, and embraced this symbol," he says.
Many patriotic pins -- flags as well as eagles, Uncle Sam hats, and more -- were originally "sweetheart jewelry," worn by wives, girlfriends, and mothers of servicemen overseas. Sometimes, the pins featured a heart or ladylike hand along with the national emblems.
Costume jewelry was an important part of individualizing dress during World War II. As Sandra Whitson, author of the upcoming book "Star-Spangled America" (Schiffer Publishing), points out, rationing put limits on fashion. Women bought dime store pins to cheer up old outfits, often choosing patriotic versions to boost morale.
Before 1942, most of these pins were made from white base metal, alloys of lead, zinc, and tin (called pot metal). After the United States entered the war, restrictions on these materials forced jewelers to experiment with sterling silver, brass, vermeil, Bakelite, and wood. (Thus, it's fairly easy to date pins as pre- or post-1942.) The pins were painted or enameled with the Stars and Stripes design or, in some examples, set with rhinestones. Exceptional rhinestone pieces can closely resemble much more valuable pins, as the former were often fashioned after those with real gems, such as a nineteenth-century Tiffany ruby, diamond, and sapphire flag.
You don't have to pledge huge sums to bring vintage flag pins home. They can be found at antiques stores, flea markets, and online auctions for as little as $5. Much sought-after examples, such as signed pieces by Trifari or Eisenberg -- known for their particularly beautiful work -- can run into the thousands. Although many jewelry designers, including Coro and Hobe, produced flag pins, some of the most magnificent were not signed, and cannot be attributed. So where to start? "Just look for something you like," Whitson says. Then, no matter which red, white, and blue banner you choose, fly it close to your heart.