Jewelry That Tells a Life Story

The Pin Lady

. . .

Barbara Dunnavant hasn’t written her memoirs yet, but you can “read” the story of her life in the delightful pins she wears.

“I always look forward to see what pin she has on next,” says Carolyn Nygren who often runs into Dunnavant in the common dining hall at Westminster Palms where they both are residents. “She always has a story to tell about it.” Of course, it helps that Barbara, who was born in Purdy, Virginia, knows how to spin a yarn in the fine tradition of Southern storytelling.

On a recent afternoon Barbara welcomed Carolyn and me into her Westminster apartment to check out her pin collection. Greeting us at the door wearing a large purple hat, she informed us that she wouldn’t be taking it off. “Trust me, you don’t want to see my head,” she says with a hearty laugh.

Barbara Dunnavant – aka The Pin Lady – in her home at Westminster Palms in St. Petersburg (that’s her on the motorcycle)

Dunnavant currently is being treated for cancer at Moffitt Cancer Institute. She was first diagnosed in 2020. But not even the Big C can suppress the exuberance of this woman whom I have come to think of as the Pin Lady. As Barbara ushers us in to her home, she hands us each a box of pastry from Nothing Bundt Cakes (a bakery on 4th Street in St. Petersburg).

The meet up with Barbara was Carolyn’s idea. She thought I might be able to use some of Barbara’s pin stories for a project called Bijoux Bios that I launched at The Studio@620 just before the pandemic hit with fellow writer Jaye Ann Terry.

Jaye and I have been gathering up interesting jewelry stories or “bijoux bios” for a book we are working on. Our tagline is “Every piece of jewelry has a story.”

Usually, the people we talk to have one piece of jewelry and one story to share with us. A diamond bought on an African safari. A ring from an uncle who was murdered. A necklace made from a magnifying glass. A Crucian hook bracelet from St. Croix.

Pins Barbara wears only on special occasions – a tiny red bow for Valentine’s Day, a bunny for Easter, a gigantic spider for Halloween and a pin with a slice of apple pie, the word Mom, a baseball and an American flag for the 4th of July.

Barbara has a whole table full of stories connected to the delightful pins that she has spread out on her kitchen table. All I have to do is point to one and out spill the most delightful tales.

Tales of a Southern upbringing (she was the fifth in a family of four girls and a boy whom she calls my Bubba), a loving marriage, a career as a nurse practioner in anesthesia at the Medical College of Virginia where she retired as the Chief Anesthetist, 14 years in the U.S. Navy Reserve which included active duty in 1990-91 at Camp LeJeune in support of Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Tales of Motherhood/Grandmotherhood, dear to her heart.

Oh, and the best story of all – a wild love affair with a man whom she met after her husband died who sparked in her a late-in-life enthusiasm for riding motorcycles.

Barbara credits her mother for her obsession with pins. “I don’t mean any haughtiness or anything, but in Virginia where we lived, my mother was blue blood,” she says. “Poor as a church mouse, but that didn’t matter, she had the right name.

“She also had a little touch of something I call bang. She didn’t have diamonds, but every day Mother wore pins.”

“Wild & Wacky Bridge Lady” pin, gifted to Barbara by friends who invited her to play bridge with them

Her mother, she insists, never wore the pins to impress. “She wore them purely for her pleasure,” she says. “And she never wore them on such a mundane place as a left shoulder. Not ever. She would wear this small hummingbird on her back, or on the nape of her neck or on the sleeve of her blouse or on the cuff of her pants or the rim of her top. So that’s how I kinda got into pins myself.”

Many of Barbara’s own pins were gifts. While at the medical college, three of her co-workers got together for her birthday and bought her a pin with four pearls in a row. “They said we were all peas in a pod.”

Later friends she played bridge with gave her a “Wild & Wacky Bridge Lady” pin. “I asked them why they were so nice to invite me to the country club for lunch/bridge,” says Barbara. They told her there were two reasons – “You are fun and you play so poorly, it keeps us winning.”

When her daughter was born in 1967, she was gifted two sets of Baby Beauty Pins, a common practice back then (they were traditionally used to fasten the back of a baby’s garment.) “I gave one pin to each Grandmother and I wore two on my blouse collar. I have them in the shadow box with my other ‘momentos,’”  says Barbara. “They are quite sweet. I never see anyone wearing them in this era.”

Another pin was a gift from that daughter who “bought” it when she was eight or nine. “My daughter and my husband and I went to Washington for the weekend. My husband was really into museums, so we went into the museum gift shop, and I said, ‘Oh, isn’t that a neat pin?’ And the lady said, ‘It’s a mother-daughter pin.’

And our little girl said, ‘Mom, I’ll get that for you with my money.’ With her money? Well, of course she didn’t have her money with her. It was at home. So I said, ‘That’d be wonderful.’ Well, of course, she never paid for it, but I was so ecstatic that she wanted to get it for me.”

“Peas in a Pod” pin, gifted to Barbara by three co-workers at medical college, and an oyster pin Barbara insisted be made with the pearl inside the oyster

Some of the pins Barbara wears only on special occasions – a tiny red bow pin for Valentine’s Day, a bunny pin for Easter, a gigantic spider pin for Halloween and a pin with a slice of apple pie, the word Mom, a baseball and an American flag for the 4th of July.

Many members of Barbara’s family played on the famed Virginia baseball team known as the Old Hickory Ball Club. “It was a local get together,” explains Barbara. “They did play in a league, but it wasn’t anything like, you know, MLB.” Barbara is now a diehard Rays fan.

The pin she wears most often has two gold bands encircling a diamond. “I rarely wear diamonds,” Barbara tells us, pointing to the diamond in the pin which she is wearing on her left shoulder. “This was my original engagement diamond — you need a magnifying glass to see it,” she laughs.

Barbara designed the pin herself – it was made by Johnston Jewelers in Seminole. “We had a difficult time because the jeweler could not seem to offset the diamond exactly the way he wanted it. And finally, one day it clicked.

One of the golden bands is square on the outside and round on the inside (her late husband’s band) – the other (her band) is a replica of a ring that belonged to her husband’s great grandmother from Cairo, Egypt. “I have the original but it was too small for my ‘fat finger,’” she laughs. “My mother had the replica made as my wedding band.”

Bought from a street vendor in New York by Barbara’s husband, this pin looks just like the car they first dated in

The pins with some of the best stories were gifts from her husband Jimmy who she met while dating his best friend. “He’s not really into you,” Jimmy told Barbara on a double date at the movies, “but I want to have a date with you.”

They ended up eloping a few months before she graduated from nursing school (back then you couldn’t be married in nursing school so they had to keep their marriage a secret). A year later, in 1966, Barbara’s mother threw the couple a proper Southern wedding reception which is when she got the wedding band.

Jimmy was from Richmond. “That’s why there are so many Richmond skyline pins,” says Barbara. “He bought one of them for me. For Christmas, I think. Then I told him, I need both gold and silver. So, he got me the other one.”

There is also a car pin that her husband bought for $6 or $7 from a street vendor during a weekend excursion in New York City. “This is the exact car that we dated in,” says Barbara in amazement. And there is the silver flower pin which he bought to commemorate their visit to Georgia O’Keeffe’s house in New Mexico.

“My husband’s favorite artist was Georgia O’Keeffe. He loved her flower paintings,” she says. “We were the last group of tourists that they allowed into Georgia O’Keeffe’s home. You can go there and do the grounds, but you can’t go into the home.” The pin came from Schwarzschild Jewelers, an old Richmond establishment that has been in the same family for five generations.

“When my husband was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 53, we, of course, were devastated,” says Barbara. “Jimmy lived five and a half years more.” During that time, they took a last cruise to Europe on the QE2 (and returned on the Concorde).

In London, they splurged and stayed at the Ritz. “Because my husband was very ill, we could only do one thing a day,” remembers Barbara. “One day I got short with someone and felt bad about it. Before we left the hotel, I told Jimmy that I had offended someone and it was still eating at me. Leaving the Ritz, he said, ‘You know, we’re not going to ruin this trip by you worrying over something you’ve said or done.’ So he walked into a jewelry store and bought me a little Speak-No-Evil Monkey pin.”

Three left from the 25 pins Barbara bought for 50 cents each at a farmer’s market to give away to her new Chesapeake Bay Area neighbors – proceeds went to the Haven, a women’s shelter

Her last gift from Jimmy was a crab pin. “He died on November the 19th at 20 minutes to midnight in 1998 at the age of 59,” she says quietly. “My birthday is the 12th of March. That year he had a goldsmith in Ashland, Virginia make this pin for me with a teeny tiny diamond and little pearls. On the back, he had engraved, ‘We had it all.’”

After her husband died, Barbara moved to the Chesapeake Bay Area. She went to a farmer’s market there and bought 25 pins — at 50 cents a piece — from a lady who was selling them for charity. “I thought it would be a nice way to introduce myself to the community, because the money was going to the Haven, a woman’s shelter. I ended up keeping about six of them.”

She also bought herself an oyster pin with a pearl in honor of the area’s most famous product. “The interesting thing about this pin is I had a ‘fight’ about it with the jeweler. Because when I asked him to make this for me and that I wanted the pearl to be on the inside of the oyster, he said, ‘Well, we’ve never done that. We always do it on the outside.’

“I said, ‘Well, I’ve never seen a pearl growing on the outside of an oyster.’ So finally he did it, you know, I’m sure, just to shut me up.”

This crab is the last pin Barbara’s husband had made for her before he died – it’s enscribed, “We had it all.”

Then in 2001 while working at an ophthalmologist’s office, administering anesthesia to cataract patients, she met Doug Carter, the motorcycle man, who had come in for cataract surgery. “Oh, gosh, he was so handsome,” she says.

She left, however, immediately after that first encounter on a two-week vacation with her husband’s family to the Grand Canyon. When she came back, her fellow nurses told her to go out into the lobby. “There was Doug with a bouquet of Madam Alexander roses asking me if I wanted to go for a ride on his motorcycle.”

Barbara was 58, Doug was 64. She was hooked — on Doug and on motorcycling. Much of their early time together was spent “living in sin” in Florida at Doug’s Madeira Beach second home. “The home was wonderful — Florida lizards not so much,” she chuckles.

When she returned to Virginia, she stopped at the gift shop of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and found “Matilda, a very befitting pin of a lizard with a fancy hat and jewels.

Barbara had become a motorcycle mama, but she still was a proper Southern lady. She didn’t sit around drinking tea and eating crumpets though. At age 67, Barbara got her own motorcycle license and started to ride solo.

“My first bike was only 250 ccs, which is quite small, and I did the Skyway Bridge on that motorcycle at 60 miles an hour,” she says. “On the big slow incline, I said out loud (of course, no one could hear me), I said, God, it’s either concrete or water. If you give me a choice, I’ll take the water.”

Barbara stopped riding motorcycles in 2015, the year her 31-year-old great-niece was killed while riding on a motorcycle with a “man of questionable inebriation.” After getting the 3 a.m. phone call about her niece’s death, Barbara never rode her bike again. “I was devastated,” she says.

But she never gave up on Doug. They stayed together nearly two decades, despite Barbara’s cancer, despite Doug’s own illness, even overlapping at Westminster Palms for a time. He died at age 85.

Barbara Dunnavant shows off her favorite pin, a metal pinpoint with the slogan Nat Den Krebs — which means Catch the Cancer in German— given to her by her 11-year-old granddaughter

As I look over Barbara’s pins, from the giant spider to one from which hung a delicate Fabergé egg, it occurs to me that two subjects were glaringly absent from her pin collection. There were no motorcycle pins and not one in the shape of a cat. I had seen a cat dart across the room earlier. Surely a Pin Lady who had a cat would have one or two cat pins?

“For Christmas one year my Doug gave me a David Yurman bracelet with a gold motorcycle with wheels that turn – hanging, you know, like a charm bracelet,” Barbara says, explaining the absence of motorcycle pins. Clearly no pin could top that.

As for the cat, Barbara laughs. “I just got that cat yesterday afternoon.” She took it in as a favor for a friend whose other cats were mistreating it. “I’ve never had a cat in my life. My friend delivered it to me yesterday. His name is Butterscotch. He’s 13. This morning, I ran around calling him Buttercup. Now he’s so mad, he won’t pay any attention to me.”

Does Barbara have a favorite pin? “Oh, yes, that would be this one,” she says, picking up a metal pinpoint pin with the slogan Nat Den Krebs. “My daughter works for Boston Scientific which covers hospitals all over Europe. At one of the hospitals there was a health fair and my granddaughter, who is 11, sent me this last Saturday in a care package.

“Nat Dean Krebs in German means Catch the Cancer. I just thought that was super sweet.”


In Search of Jewelry Stories

Take a peek into your jewelry box. You may have a piece of jewelry that has a tale to tell. Your jewelry box, in fact, may be full of stories.

Jaye Ann Terry and Margo Hammond, founders of the Bijoux Bios project, are interested in the story your ring, necklace, bracelet or even watch can tell. They currently are compiling touching, humorous and even bizarre jewelry stories for a book. If you’d like to share your jewelry’s story for consideration, you can contact them at



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