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The Pin Swap, the SNAG Conference Icebreaker

An Entry into Collecting for Some Jewelers


Every year, the SNAG conference opens with a meet and greet of sorts, an icebreaker—the annual Pin Swap. This year was no different. About half an hour before the doors opened for the Swap, participants began lining up outside of the room. Pins go fast here; they’re often first come, first serve. Artists have been posting their Pin Swap pins on social media for weeks, maybe months, often using #SNAGpinswap2019 or #SNAGpinswap. People are ready to trade, and they don’t want to miss that pin they’ve been swooning over on Instagram. Ideally the Pin Swap is an egalitarian event where newcomers can trade pins with big names and vice versa, not needing to worry about a price tag. However, reality sets in and various trading strategies ensue.

SNAG Pin Swap participant’s loot
A portion of a SNAG Pin Swap participant’s loot, 2019, photo: Kathleen Kennedy

The challenge of making items for the Pin Swap, as it was explained to me years ago, is to design and make the best pin as quickly and for as little money as possible. This might involve using Shrinky Dinks, safety pins, bench scrap, “artist trash,” etc., in the most creative ways possible. One of my favorite Pin Swap pins was made utilizing this approach. Kyle Patnaude’s 2012 Pin Swap pins were thick white card stock, embossed with the imagery of a manhole cover and Kyle’s website address where the word “sewer” would be. A simple prefab pin back was glued onto the back. The pins were a beautiful, subtle design that tied in perfectly with the imagery and themes of Kyle’s work, they cost next to nothing to make, and they included Kyle’s contact information. I was so excited for these to be a hit at the Pin Swap, but quickly learned that they were very controversial. For many Pin Swap attendees, these pins did not meet the high bar they set for their own trades.

Pin Swap room at SNAG Chicago
Pin Swap room at SNAG Chicago, 2019, photo: Kathleen Kennedy

Trading strategies very greatly at the Pin Swap. On one side of the spectrum, there are those like Marilyn Da Silva, who will trade, or even give, a pin to whoever wants one. On the other side of the spectrum are those artists who made only a handful of extremely well-crafted, high-quality pins and who are very selective about who they trade with (these are the pins that would not have been traded for the aforementioned manhole covers). Of course, these are two extremes, and there are plenty of artists in the middle ground; however, it’s not uncommon to have a trade proposal turned down.

Heather Nuber Pin Swap pins
Heather Nuber Pin Swap pins in Maggie Smith’s collection; the yellow fibula pin is a 2019 Pin Swap; the swap date of the white fibula pin is unknown, photo: Kathleen Kennedy

Zach Mellman-Carsey, a 2019 Pin Swap participant and emerging artist speaker, had a creative way of subverting the strategy game with his pins. He created 25 pins in total, 16 that utilized the imagery of a speaker and nine that incorporated a Bluetooth speaker … these pins can play sound! Zach blindly packed the pins into identical boxes, so that it wouldn’t be possible to tell which box contained which pin. Anyone who wanted to trade with Zach was able to, as long as he had pins left. Artists who asked to trade picked their own box out of a bag and, at random, received either one of the 16 “regular” pins or one of the nine Bluetooth speaker pins.

Pin Swap participant Zach Mellman-Carsey
Pin Swap participant Zach Mellman-Carsey poses with one of his Pin Swap pins, which he blindly packed in boxes to hand out, 2019, photo: Kathleen Kennedy

The Pin Swap is often an entry point into collecting for many young artists. Lenáe Zirnheld, who just attended her second SNAG conference, said that the Pin Swap introduced her to the idea of art trades. Her first Pin Swap was also her first experience trading art with anyone. She felt that it fostered a community of support by linking people and letting them own a small part of someone else’s practice. Many of her trades have turned into friendships. It’s a special thing to have pins from your Pin Swap collection be a stand-in for a memory or friend.

Pin Swap participant Lenáe Zirnheld
Pin Swap participant Lenáe Zirnheld models her Pin Swap loot at the event, 2019, photo: Kathleen Kennedy

Maggie Smith has an extensive Pin Swap collection. She began swapping pins at the 2011 SNAG conference. She recounted that she was reading about Kathryn Osgood just before attending the 2011 conference. At the Pin Swap, in a hot, crowded room, Maggie found herself face-to-face with Kathryn. Kathryn introduced herself and offered her a pin, at which point Maggie began to “fangirl.” The pin from that Swap is still a favorite of Maggie’s, and one she often wears today. Maggie utilizes the Pin Swap as a way to discover new up-and-coming artists. She’s always on the lookout for new artists to watch, and new jewelers to include in the exhibits that she curates. The Pin Swap has been an incredible aid in helping her do this.

Maggie Smith Pin Swap Collection
Maggie began participating in the Pin Swap at the 2011 Seattle SNAG conference. This is a small selection of her Pin Swap collection, 2019, photo: Kathleen Kennedy

SNAG’s Pin Swap is a time-honored event that gives artists a chance to meet one another and introduce a snippet of their work to the larger community. It often showcases the ingenuity of an artist in designing and creating a beautiful pin utilizing minimal time and materials. While the Pin Swap itself will most likely remain the same, the participants evolve, and the expectations of pins evolve. The drive for artists to collect one another’s work is strong, and the Pin Swap will be there to facilitate the trade.

Kathryn Osgood Pin Swap pins
Kathryn Osgood Pin Swap pins in Maggie Smith’s collection, photo: Kathleen Kennedy


  • Kathleen Kennedy

    Kathleen Kennedy, born in 1985, is an artist and educator currently living in Richmond, VA. She received her BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and her MFA from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Kennedy is an instructor and the Metals Area coordinator for the Department of Craft and Material Studies at VCU. She has also taught as an instructor at Montgomery College, in Maryland, and the Penland School of Craft, in North Carolina. She’s a member of the advisory council for the Ethical Metalsmiths and currently serves as co-director of Radical Jewelry Makeover, an international jewelry mining and recycling project that travels across the country and abroad. Kennedy’s work deals with finding meaning in the mundane. She has most recently exhibited her work at invitational and juried exhibits at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, VA, the Tacoma Art Museum, WA, and Contemporary Craft, Pittsburgh, PA. Find her at and

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