Passionate collector of vintage brooches lectures on the pieces, donates them to charity

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Pat Walt’s attraction to gorgeous brooches began innocently enough.

“I always did like jewelry, and I wore pins to work,” the Westmoreland County resident said.

Now she has, oh, about 500 of them.

“I collect vintage costume jewelry for several reasons,” the 77-year-old said. “It’s fun. You don’t have to feed it or clothe it. And no matter what your weight is, it fits.”

Levity aside, Mrs. Walt has become quite knowledgeable about the objects of her passion and frequently gives talks about them to groups as varied as Masonic lodges and senior centers.

She also donates them to charitable causes and gives them as gifts, so her exact pin count varies between 300 and 500.

Probably the most celebrated pin collector is former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, whose pins were exhibited at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in 2011. Ms. Albright would use the symbolism of a pin she was wearing to break the ice when on a diplomatic mission or to emphasize a point she planned to make during a news conference.

Mrs. Walt has no such subliminal intents. She wears what she finds attractive, and that often includes a lot of sparkle and color. She also prefers big pins. Most of them fall within the categories of butterflies, designer pins and Christmas.

When she visited the Albright exhibition at the Carnegie, she was less than impressed.

“I was a little bit disappointed. I expected to see a little more glitz,” she said.

She found it interesting to learn why Ms. Albright bought her pieces and acknowledged that some of them were “very lovely. But I expected more bling.”

In that, Mrs. Walt is in good company. A current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York of gem-covered jewelry by Paris designer Joel A. Rosenthal has been critically disparaged. “Liberace [would] think it’s a little tacky,” critic Blake Gopnik told NPR’s Marketplace. But Mr. Rosenthal has the last laugh as wealthy patrons pony up thousands for a pin or earrings.

Faux, but fabulous

One thing Mrs. Walt’s collection shares with Ms. Albright’s is that the pins are not highly valuable because the stones are faux.

“The beauty of the costume jewelry is that you can buy it without taking out a loan,’’ she said. “The average person couldn’t afford the real thing.”

However, the craftsmanship is high and most of the stones are quality Austrian crystals.

“That’s what makes the vintage jewelry unique, they were all hand-crafted,” Mrs. Walt said, and most are as exquisitely finished on the back as on the front.

She finds pins at antique shows and shops and at high-end flea markets, both locally and when she travels, and occasionally on the Internet.

Her collection contains pieces by important names in the history of vintage jewelry, which, in her opinion, ended in the 1960s when people stopped wearing glitz and began wearing beads.

“It’s still made. It’s still out there," she said. "But I don’t think the melody is there.’’

Her treasures include items by names that resonate through the fashion and design worlds: Hattie Carnegie, Butler & Wilson, Nettie Rosenstein and Miriam Haskell, considered the “queen of vintage jewelry.” She also has pieces by Larry Vrba, whose jewelry “is particularly sought after by the transvestite community ... because it is often so big and bold,” according to antiques expert Judith Miller.

Mrs. Walt has a Fred Block fur clip, two signature Schiaparelli orchids, a Henry Schreiner “trembler” brooch with parts that move, and Christmas pins by Stanley Hagler that sport his characteristic seed beads and include one by his former apprentice, Mark Mercy.

“Women loved him," Mrs. Walt said of Mr. Mercy. "His most famous client was the Duchess of Windsor.’’ 

Her favorite pin in her collection is a one-of-a-kind abstracted flower with openwork gilded leaves sparkling with rhinestones. Mrs. Walt and the dealer she purchased it from believe it to be an unsigned runway piece, probably made for a fashion show in the 1940s.

Butterflies mean rebirth 

Mrs. Walt collects two types of butterflies, those made by designers Weiss, Kramer and Warner, and those in the regency medallion style, which come in three sizes and a variety of colors.

“Every time my granddaughters visit, they ask, ‘Can we go play with the butterflies?’” Mrs. Walt said.

Each of Mrs. Walt’s pins has a place of its own in the drawers of free-standing jewelry cabinets in her cozy, immaculately kept home.

The pins leave the house to mark special occasions in the lives of her granddaughters and nieces.

And, she said, “If a friend is ill, I give a butterfly, a sign of rebirth and eternal life.”

Among the tips she offers are to store pins carefully and not on top of one another, to never use anything harsh to clean them, and if something is broken to find a jeweler who’s willing to repair costume jewelry.

She advised those who collect jewelry to be aware of its value because unscrupulous dealers or collectors may try to take advantage of an owner. For example, she said, she met a dealer who bragged about paying $6 for a pin at a Squirrel Hill estate sale that would sell for $300.

Mrs. Walt was born in Irwin, graduated from North Huntingdon High School and attended Pinkerton School, a Pittsburgh business school. She and her husband, George “Bud” Walt, who died in 1997, have two sons. Michael Walt is a doctor and Navy veteran who served in Iraq and lives in Bradford with wife Debra and their three children, 10-year-old Elizabeth Erin and 7-year-old twins Asa Gabriel and Adeline Grace. Eric Walt is a physical therapist who lives in Belle Vernon.

After her children were born, Mrs. Walt earned an associate degree from Westmoreland County Community College in Youngwood. The school hired her as program coordinator, which included developing new programs. Her most notable achievement, she said, was establishing the College for Kids in 1982, the first in the area. She worked at the college for 25 years and since retirement has stayed active with the college’s Education Foundation, assisting with fundraising events, such as the annual Chef’s Table Dinner.

Mrs. Walt’s word of advice to anyone who has vintage jewelry: “Even if you have daughters and they don’t like it, they will in 20 years. So don’t get rid of it.”

Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: or 412-263-1925.

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