How to Wear a Phi Beta Kappa Key (if you choose to)

Phi Beta Kappa is the oldest, best-known, and most prestigious academic honor society in the US. Graduates in the top 10 percent of the undergrad class in 284 member universities are elected to Phi Beta Kappa, which I estimate gives a total of one million people eligible to join. (This background information is for the benefit of non-US readers of this blog).

The insignia of Phi Beta Kappa is a gold key with the member’s name, college, and year of election inscribed. For women, there are numerous ways to wear the key, such as on a necklace or bracelet. For men, the traditional – and I do mean traditional – way to wear it is attached to a watch-fob. Who, especially among millennials, wears the full outfit of a vest, pocket-watch, and watch-fob? Would millennials even know what a watch-fob is?

I was elected to Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard. Never having possessed a vest, pocket-watch, and watch-fob, I never wore my key. A year ago I decided I didn’t want it to continue to sit, unworn, in a drawer. I took the key to a very creative jeweler, Michael daCosta at Fortunes Fine Jewelers in Toronto, and he attached it to a gold tear drop setting on a lapel pin (as shown in the photo on my home page). The pointed end of the tear drop has a small hook that encircles the ring that is attached to the top of the key. The wide end of the tear drop has a perpendicular pin attached, and the pin is held in a lapel buttonhole by a clasp.

I wore my lapel-mounted Phi Beta Kappa key to a recent reunion of my undergraduate class (known by its members as Harvard’s worst class ever, a rubric given it by then-Harvard President Nathan Pusey because of its radicalism). The key caught the attention of quite a few of my classmates, and their typical response was that they, too, had never worn their key, and it was sitting in a drawer somewhere.

If this is indicative of the situation nationally, it represents bad news for Phi Beta Kappa. Any organization that has an insignia wants its members to display it. I’m convinced that the simple tear-drop lapel mount provides an appropriate and contemporary way for both men and women to wear their key.

I’ve decided to wear my key in the lapel buttonhole of suits or sport coats. Since Phi Beta Kappa has not spread beyond the borders of the US, the key is at least a conversation starter in Canada. I suppose I could also tell unwitting interlocutors it is the key to the city of Tashkent or the Azeri legion of honor. Seriously, I hope more of my fellow Phi Beta Kappa members, especially the males, wear their keys. With Mr. DaCosta’s help, I believe I’ve found an easy and up-to-date way to do it.

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