Documenting the rich cultural history of nameplate jewelry
Marcel Rosa-Salas and Isabel Flower are no strangers to archiving. The two self-proclaimed nerds are both deeply enthralled with anthropology and history. After meeting in school, their mutual love for nameplates inspired a research project about the unique cultural ephemera. However, after publishing an academic paper on the jewelry — the first one to be published about the subject — the lack of recorded history and resources led them to a deeper search for personal narratives tied to nameplates.
Thus began #DocumentingTheNameplate, an extensive archival project that includes live events where anyone can come to be photographed with their plates and document their personal history with the jewelry. With this, the pair hopes to capture the global phenomenon through an inclusive oral history that is — surprise, surprise — the first of its kind. The FADER spoke with Marcel and Isabel about their methodology, their inspiration, and their own personal histories with nameplates.
What was your first nameplate? What kind of history do you have in your life with the jewelry?
Marcel: I grew up in Brooklyn, and nameplates were part of the cultural ecosystem of the ’90s, early 2000s. It was something that I always coveted, but it was a big expense to give a child a $200 necklace, so I really had to show and prove that I could handle it. My first nameplate just had my name in simple script with an underline and a heart [as] flourish — a very traditional style. It was definitely a coming-of-age item for me that I still have, actually.
When I started making my own money, I vowed [to get] all the things that my mom wouldn't get me growing up. Since then, I've been accruing a collection of name jewelry because I find the style extremely beautiful. I have made earrings that say “pensive,” and I have an XOXO nameplate medallion, one of those really extra nameplates with the XYZ chain, and I have a name ring that says my Meyers-Briggs. Nameplate jewelry is a cool item through which to reconcile these cognitively dissonant parts of myself: Yes, I can be ostentatious and thoughtful at the same time.
Isabel: For both of us, the intersection between jewelry and language, or any kind of self-styling and language, is really important. I have really enjoyed making jewelry with words that mean something to me. I also have a Meyers-Briggs ring, which we made together. I'm about to get a name ring that says No,” which I'm really excited about.
I grew up in New Jersey [and] I actually didn't have a fine jewelry nameplate until I was in my late teens. The first one was some kind of fake gold that I got at the mall, and it turned green. Then I had a silver one in high school that one of my friends made me. Both of those disintegrated so it was a big deal for me, when I was maybe 19 or 20, to get one that was actually gold.
As a kid they weren't always the norm. When I was in high school, in New Jersey, they weren't as popular. I didn't feel as comfortable wearing mine. It's been something I've struggled with and now I'm at a place where I'm really like, Yes, this is what I want to be wearing. Nameplates can be seen as gaudy and [that] obviously is so imbued with cultural and political implications. I feel really happy that I've come to a place where I actually really feel comfortable wearing whatever the fuck I want to wear, in any situation.
“The fact that Carrie [Bradshaw] became representative of this style says a lot about how things become ‘legitimized.’” — Isabel Flower
It was something entwined in both race and class, which most things are. It wasn't just if a black girl had it; it was any girl that you saw with that on, you assumed she was from a certain place or wanted to look like she was.
Marcel: Yeah, I think it's still stigmatized, for better or for worse, as ghetto. But one of our friends really explained her response to those sort of judgments beautifully. She was like, "Yeah, I am ghetto. I am from the hood, and I'm proud of that. That doesn't hinder me. That only pushes me forward and it's part of my identity so she embraces that."
For me, I operate in majority-white spaces most of my day, every day, in graduate school, and I'm probably the only person in my department wearing nameplate jewelry. For many reasons, I have the privilege to do that — as someone who's lighter-skinned, for example, and as someone who researches certain things. I'm not saying that my phenotype, the way I present myself, has nothing to do with the fact that certain people might feel safer or more accepting of me wearing certain jewelry because we live in a racist, sexist society.
Isabel: People always want to place you. They want to take stock of all the visual signifiers of your person and figure out who you are. Both of us have dealt with things about us that would complicate [such assumptions], and people are like, “Eh, I don't know what to do with this.”
There was a conversation a couple years ago on the internet about the “cultural appropriation” of nameplates, which in the end seemed to truly limit the actual history. You’ve found nameplates across several cultures and countries. What kind of trends are you guys finding within communities of color with this jewelry?
Marcel: One of the main trends is that these pieces serve as coming-of-age items. I wrote a letter to my mom when I was like ten years old, saying, “I think I did good on the citywide test. I think I deserve a nameplate. I'm a grown up now. Can I have this piece of jewelry?” [As a] coming-of-age item usually it's like you are financially independent or you achieved something you think signifies a life transition.
Isabel: We have definitely noticed regional differences between how nameplates look. I personally think of double plates as being really New York and New Jersey. Obviously, this is a generalization, but West Coast plates often [are] single plates and [have] way more decorations around the outside of the plate. I love the Snoopy ones, personally. That's a small distinction. Sometimes, I feel like I can make a rough guess about where somebody's from based on their plate.
But on another level, we came of age around the year 2000, where the style did make a big shift within mainstream culture to become something that was more generally considered to be normal. We actually witnessed that happening. [Nameplates have] a very interesting intersection of questions about class, race, aesthetic, when something is considered beautiful, [and] how that shift can happen in a cultural imagination.
Something that we wrote about in our essay was the role of the nameplate on Sex and the City having a white character on a major channel TV show have a nameplate, we think, problematically. It definitely changed the way people perceived those, even to the extent [that] when you Google “nameplate,” the first [thing] that comes up is “Carrie necklace.” The fact that Carrie [Bradshaw] became representative of this style says a lot about how things become “legitimized.”
“We know of people as far as Paris and Iran wearing nameplates, so trying to understand how this style circulates as a cultural artifact, for us, is really important.” — Marcel Rosa-Salas
How did you guys come to pursue this project?
Marcel: We bonded over our mutual love for nameplate jewelry, and wanted to pursue some sort of research project because we're both nerds and love to saddle ourselves with more projects. Initially, we were just going to do a photo research project about nameplates and also try to document [the transformation of] Fulton Street. [Then] the opportunity came for us to actually start a podcast through Top Rank Magazine. That was one of our first research forays into trying to develop a historical and cultural history of the style, which led us to not only interview our peers, our friends and family, but also jewelry store owners on Fulton Street. We wrote the first academic article about nameplates. That's kind of how the project started.
Isabel: I think it's kind of funny that we were planning on doing this project before we had any outlet to do it in. In all the stuff that I had [studied] in school, what I had worked on was not only archives and typology, but also memory and historiographers. I was very interested in pursuing it from the lens [of] the nameplate being a material manifestation of a lot of these different more conceptual things. It was really interesting that nameplates are not really considered to be fine jewelry even though they are ostensibly, as far as being made with real gold and real jewels.
We tried to use a traditional lit review method to research this and that didn't work at all, which kind of gets to the crux of the issue: a communal history-making process would be the only way to do this. It would need to be a crowdsourced project. There's no way that it could be something that would be informed by experts, or by some kind of grander social narrative or cultural narrative. I think that we were able to do that in the podcast. Then we also got a lot of friends to send in little clips and things, but that's one of the goals of the book: to make it as inclusive as possible.
Once you realized how large of a scope you had and how little resources, what methods did you have to develop for this archiving something so specific yet wide-reaching?
Marcel: One of our main methodologies [is] these events that we're going to be hosting in New York City, across the country, and hopefully across the globe. This is an international phenomenon: we know of people as far as Paris and Iran wearing nameplates, so trying to understand how this style circulates as a cultural artifact, for us, is really important. We're basically just inviting people to come to a location. We have a DJ. We hire a photographer that we really love and respect and they get their photos of their jewelry taken, and we ask everyone to write a short piece about the story of their jewelry or what it means to them. In this way, we're compiling a cultural history, hopefully in different cities across the globe.
Outside of the events and the book do you have any further plans for the project? It seems ever-evolving.
Marcel: I'd love to travel with this project to see where it takes us and how we see the styles and the histories and the stories around this type of jewelry evolve or change or remain consistent. We have a lot of hypotheses and, speaking in very anthropological terms, [we’ve] gathered a lot of data about the materials but there's so much more work to do. I think that's really exciting, gathering more testimony, gathering more photographs to archive this style for sure. That's kind of how culture circulates, in a way.
This [one] jewelry historian was able to tell us that, in the Victorian era, women were wearing brooches and things with words on them. So essentially, nameplate jewelry as a style has a disparate origin that we're not saying necessarily belongs to one community. What we are trying to problematize is the very phenomenon of the Carrie necklace. Let's just get real about what happens when a certain style is validated, when it's worn on one body and denigrated when it's worn on another body. For us, in politics, that's what needs to be problematized and taken to task. But in terms of saying that one community or one group owns nameplate jewelry or not, I don't think we're as much interested in making that argument as we are in the very many forms that this rich style takes across the country and across the world.
Isabel: On the appropriation tip, too, we wrote like a 30,000 word essay, and I think the word appropriation only appears in it one time, because there's just so many other ways to discuss this that are a lot more complicated and nuanced, so yeah, we're trying not to get caught up in the simplicity of that story because I don't think it really does justice.
Well, it erases the history.
Isabel: I feel like that is exactly why we are using this open call format. We have an email address where you can send your nameplate picture and your testimony if you can't come to an event — any person can email us and be part of it. Our job is not to be historians or curators in a formal sense. We are archivists, so this needs to be inclusive and open. It's not up to us to decide who has the most legitimate story to tell. Every story can be told and considered.