A Spectator Sport

My mother—an incredible figure skater—got my family hooked on the Winter Olympics. As a kid growing up in Urbandale, Iowa, our big treat was to eat dinner in front of the TV in the den whenever the Olympics were broadcast. Some 40 years later, I experienced a dream come true: I got to attend the Winter Olympics. Thanks to a friend, I attended the last seven days of the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Utah, as a guest of Olympic sponsor John Hancock Life Insurance. I rejoiced as Sarah Hughes won the gold medal in women’s figure skating; I agonized when the U.S. men’s hockey team lost the gold medal to the Canadians; I delighted in Apolo Ohno’s speed skating performance (speed skating is one of my favorite events); and I cheered for the U.S. downhill skiing team until my voice was hoarse. And yes, I even had a seat at the closing ceremonies. Could an Olympic experience be any more exhilarating and memorable?

Well, actually, yes, and as members of the jewelry industry, you’ll understand: I became addicted to pin trading.

When I first heard about pin trading, I thought, “How geeky!” But when a downhill skier from Switzerland stops to talk to you because he admires a pin on your hat, you realize that pin trading is cool—and fun.

Bringing people together. Pin trading is a great way to meet people. At one post-event party I attended—after the Canadians defeated the U.S. men’s hockey team—the National Hockey League was having a party right next door to ours. I sneaked around to the entrance, peeked in, and saw a pile of NHL hockey pins (very hard to come by) on a table in the front. Pin-trading fever overtook me, and I actually walked into the party. After a few minutes, I felt guilty and figured I’d better ‘fess up to someone about my pin fetish. I approached a woman near the table, told her that I wasn’t an invited guest of the party, but that I really wanted to buy one of the pins. She said, “Sure, just take a couple.” A couple! So I did, and returned to my party with pins for my friends and me.

Pin trading is also a great way to meet new people from outside the United States. A 10-year-old boy from Ireland was in line behind me while waiting to get into the men’s speed skating event. He swapped me a speed skating pin for my Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Mascot pin—very colorful, large, and loved by kids, it features all of the Olympic mascots: a bear, a rabbit, and a raccoon. Later, while walking through the Olympic Village, I met a family from Brazil who were all wearing some interesting flag pins from different countries. I stopped to trade with them and ended up exchanging a movable U.S. flag and Olympic logo pin made by John Hancock for a Nagano 1998 Olympic slalom skier pin. (Pin traders will swap all Olympic years.)

All of the sponsors had their own pins. John Hancock made a colorful, movable bobsled team pin that slides sideways. (Note: Movable pins like the bobsled are easily traded for two or three stationary ones.) I also love my 1994 Kodak Bonnie Blair speed skating pin.

I acquired a 1998 Kodak Tara Lipinski “Share the Spirit” figure skating pin while waiting in line for three hours to buy a Roots beret. (Roots is the Canadian version of The Gap, and their clothing was very popular during the 1998 Winter Olympics. In 2002, Roots opened stores in Park City, Utah, and one in the Olympic Village.) While in line at the store, I met a man who worked for an Olympic broadcaster. He liked my Bud Light hockey pin, so I traded it to him for his Lipinski pin. Other sponsor pins I like include the John Hancock figure skating pin, the Visa snowflake, the Sports Illustrated skier, and the Pillsbury Doughboy gold medalist.

Though everyone’s a winner in the sport of pin trading, using a little strategy can increase the value of trades. For example, although I had two Canadian Roots pins—a popular crimson maple leaf with gold trim—I hid the second. Pin Trading 101: Having only one of any pin builds up the pin’s value. Anyway, my strategy came in handy when it came to acquiring another pin I really wanted: a Salt Lake City NBC Guest pin. If you wore one of these it meant you were a “hot dog” with NBC. I saw a number of them, but no one would trade with me … until I met someone who really wanted my Roots pin. Well, after we exchanged pins, we found out that we were both hoarding extras—him because he was an NBC executive, and me because I’d gotten two from a trade with a Labatt’s beer salesman who was staying in my hotel. I’d traded the salesman my movable bobsled pin for two Roots pins while waiting for buses to shuttle us to the gold medal hockey game.

Before, during, and after events, everyone was trading pins. The night I saw Apolo skate, I’d been pin trading all evening—with waiters, bartenders, and guests—before the event. In fact, I’d exhausted all the people in our suite with pins to trade before we even saw the athletes compete. So I strolled out of the party, closer to the spectator stands, and spotted the pin I had to have: It was an American flag with the Twin Towers in the background. I’d heard about that pin—the Olympics were very special that year because of the increase in patriotism. I motioned to the woman that I wanted to trade—by pointing to my pins, and she left her seat to meet me. We started to talk, and she was reluctant to give up the pin since she’d gotten it through her son’s New York-based Boy Scout troop. After talking for a while, though, she agreed to the trade because she was pretty sure she’d be able to get another. I gave her a speed skate pin with a movable bottom blade in exchange for the 9-11 pin, and I swore to her that I’d never trade it away.

Every pin has a story—that’s what’s special about pin trading. Everyone has his own reasons for wanting a pin you have, and it’s amazing to hear their stories and see how these little pieces of jewelry affect everyone’s Olympic experiences. I’ve had conversations with people from all over the world that I never imagined I’d have, all because of trading Olympic pins. In fact, what makes these base-metal pins so precious are the memories of acquiring them.

And that’s how an Olympic dream—and a new passion—came true for me after nearly 20 years in the world of jewelry.