Identity

Uncovering the Cultural History of the Nameplate Necklace

The #DocumentingTheNameplate project invites jewelry owners all over the world to share the stories and traditions behind their nameplates.

by Sarah Burke
May 23 2018, 7:29pm

Photo by Naima Green, courtesy of #DocumentingTheNameplate. 

Marcel Rosa-Salas has been enamored by nameplate jewelry—typically gold necklaces that announce the wearer’s name in elaborate script—for as long as she can remember. In the predominantly Puerto-Rican and Italian Brooklyn neighborhood where she grew up, there was a jewelry store across the street from her home, and every day, she’d pass a case of nameplate necklaces in the window. "There was just something about the flourish of them, the shine, the fact that they were pieces of jewelry that proclaimed your presence to the world," she tells Broadly.

She finally received her first nameplate as a young teen when she wrote her mother a letter explaining that her high test scores showed she was responsible enough to own the $200 piece of jewelry, and that it would mark a coming-of-age moment in her life. It worked, and she’s been collecting nameplate jewelry ever since—including pieces featuring other identity markers beyond her name, such as a ring that reads "INFJ" (her Myers-Briggs personality type) and bamboo-style hoop earrings that say "pensive," her favorite word. "I love the cognitive dissonance that it evokes to have a bamboo earring that some may call 'ostentatious' or 'tacky' as an insult but to have it be paired with a word that is ostensibly its opposite—and kind of embrace that contradiction," she says. "That encapsulates who I am."

For nameplate owners like Rosa-Salas, the pieces of jewelry are often so much more than just that; and the way they function socially as a tie to a specific culture and assertion of individuality is richly complex. But, as Rosa-Salas and frequent collaborator Isabel Flower will tell you, a search for the history of nameplate jewelry won’t turn up many stories like Rosa-Salas’ that contextualize its significance and genealogy. Instead, it mostly turns up references to Sarah Jessica Parker’s Sex and the City character, Carrie Bradshaw, who famously wore a nameplate on the show after Parker’s stylist saw "kids in the neighborhood" around her New York City shop sporting the style and decided to put one the iconic white TV character.

Photo by Naima Green, courtesy of #DocumentingTheNameplate.

Today, many refer to nameplates as "Carrie necklaces" and consider the show an origin point for the style becoming popular despite it actually dating back much, much further. "It’s not that the history doesn’t exist," says Rosa-Sales, "but it hasn’t been canonized by academia in a way that validates it as a cultural product worthy of study."

In an attempt to begin filling that gap, Rosa-Salas (an NYU doctoral student in cultural anthropology) and Flower (a photographer, writer, and former Art Forum editor) started #DocumentingTheNameplate, a project that uses oral history methods to piece together the origins and evolving cultural significance of the style.

The project began in 2015 when Flower and Rosa-Salas launched the podcast they currently cohost for Top Rank magazine with an episode on nameplates (highly recommended), after having bonded over their mutual affection for the adornments. (Flower grew up mostly in New Jersey and also has a Myers-Briggs ring and hoops that say "exclusive," among other pieces.) Then, in 2017, they co-wrote the academic journal essay Say My Name: Nameplate Jewelry and the Politics of Taste.

Photo by Naima Green, courtesy of #DocumentingTheNameplate.

The duo's essay and podcast episode both dig into the ways in which nameplates can be used as a case study to understand how race and class intersect to shape notions of taste; for instance, why in some contexts the jewelry is considered "cool" and in others considered "tacky." They also go into how wearing a nameplate can be considered an act of "taking up space" for working-class people of color. "On the most personal level, wearing one’s name opposes the homogenization and cultural illegibility experienced by immigrants, low-income groups, and communities of color in the United States by making hypervisible the wearer’s unique identity," they write in the essay.

Plus, they point out how the enduring idea that Sarah Jessica Parker popularized the style perfectly exemplifies how upper-class white people are the gatekeepers of "the mainstream." "In our writings and our studies, we were pleasantly surprised at how the nameplate is a really interesting theoretical vessel for looking at a lot of these larger cultural systems or structural mechanisms in place for how information moves around or how it becomes legitimate or not," says Flower.

Photo by Azikiwe Mohammed, courtesy of #DocumentingTheNameplate.

The duo’s next step was to start hosting public events in which anyone and everyone are invited to bring their nameplate jewelry to be photographed and write down the story and significance behind their pieces. The idea is to center the "neighborhood kids"—and folks who were once neighborhood kids—who actually cultivated and popularized the style, but who typically get written out of history. So far, they’ve hosted three events, each with a different photographer. The next will be from 5-8 PM on June 16, at 175 Canal Street in Manhattan, and feature photographer Gogy Esparza. For those who can’t come in person, there’s also an online form to submit photos and testimonies. Eventually, it will all come together in a book.

"The 'Carrie necklace' is, for some people, one entry point into nameplates that I want to honor and respect," says Rosa-Salas, "but I think we also want to push back on this idea that there is one sole originator for the style and also resist the continual erasure that specifically lower-income Black and brown creative producers often face when their specific aesthetic contributions are brought mainstream."

Photo by Naima Green, courtesy of #DocumentingTheNameplate.

"It’s not only about nameplates as a material object," adds Flower, "but it’s also about the nature of historiography and the fact that every experience and every historical event or item is fundamentally pluralistic and there is never a linear narrative of what something means."

Indeed, what the duo found when researching the origins of the general style surprised even them—both of whom related to the jewelry through 90s hip-hop culture. They learned, for instance, that in the Victorian era, some Europeans wore name brooches, and around the same time within the Jewish tradition, some wore pendants that said "mizpah" to signify that they were separated from a loved one. In their essay, Flower and Rosa-Salas also mention a friend whose grandmother wore a nameplate as a young Philadelphia woman in the 1940s, and working-class women in New York’s Queens and Long Island who wore nameplates shortly after WWII.

Photo by Azikiwe Mohammed, courtesy of #DocumentingTheNameplate.

Throughout the various histories, though, they noticed that the theme of needing to assert one's individuality in the face of erasure and displacement was a common thread, and that the style can be linked to global migration movements that have occurred over the past 200 years. And through submitted testimonies, they’ve found that today, people wear and make nameplates all over the world—each with their own history that shapes the aesthetic, font, and way it’s worn.

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"We know from our friend in Texas that nameplates are different there; and people in London come to New York to get them; people in Iran wear a specific style; there’s a lot of geographic diversity in how all the pieces are manufactured and worn," says Rosa-Sales. "We hope to do our best to try to touch as many of those communities and hear as many of those stories as possible."