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.

5 comments

  1. Hmm. I’m a classmate of Sandy’s, and have never had occasion to wear or display my PBK key. I doubt that I’ve looked at it in the past four decades.

    When encountering those I don’t know, there is enough ambivalence and anxiety about the fact that I attended Harvard (should that come up, which it usually doesn’t) that I would be reluctant to double down by mentioning or displaying PBK paraphernalia. I am proud of the work that went into earning the pin, but feel rather little inclination to wear it on my sleeve–or lapel, or non-existent vest or watch fob.

    On the other hand, I sometimes wish there were a subtle, passive aggressive way to display my credentials when responding to the know nothings one frequently encounters on discussion boards on the net–those too ignorant to recognize how little they know about any given subject.That might well be something useful to me.

  2. I graduated from the State University of New York at Buffalo with a degree in biology in 1975 and was elected to PBK in 1974. I only bought the key this year. Being an accountant now (Masters of professional accounting from university of Texas at Austin in 1981), I hate to think my purchase of the key was frivolous. So, I do wish I had an occasion to wear it as a necklace.

    • Thanks for your comment. Wearing it as a necklace, either by itself or with other things, is a great idea. Women wear necklaces far more frequently than men wear lapel pins. In my case, I’m a professor so do not wear a jacket to work every day. So I encourage you to wear it as a necklace as often as you can.

  3. Funny thing. Superior athletes or actors and other entertainment personalities are not shy about wearing or displaying tokens of their achievements (e.g., superbowl rings, various trophies). Yet so many of us selected by PBK for our academic achievements are shy about displaying our wares, feeling it might appear boorish or boastful. Interesting comment on the values of our time.

  4. Sandy:
    Thanks for your input. But I couldn’t find the photo you referenced as being on your blog home page, showing your key thingy. I’d like to see it if there’s a better way you can direct me to it..

    I have to admit that when I ordered my pbk key, I chose the BIGGEST size. but like many of us, it’s rarely seen the light of day. the same for each of my mother’s and father’s pbk keys.
    I have to say, I’m still to self concious to wear it singly on a gold chain necklace. but perhaps combined with a few other pendants so its presence is a bit muted.

    I got my key in the fall of senior year. “True” Junior phibetes got them in the spring of Junior year, based on grades up to the first semester of Junior year. So mine was based on all semesters through junior year.
    That did put me on the pbk selection panel for the final senior year end elections. I dimly remember two things about the selection committee.
    1. I don’t remember if the Radcliffe pbk’s had selection meetings with the Harvard group. But I do remember that someone in our group commented on the fact that the Radcliffe selection committee seemed to consider non-academic rankings to a greater degree than the Harvard selection committee. In fact, she described there being relatively picayune comparisons of grades rankings and the difficulty of courses at the Harvard selection committee that were largely absent from the Radcliffe group. How this person knew this, I don’t know. so mayhaps it not correct. And I do remember my championing one classmate whose grade average was a tad lower than someone elses, but she had other credentials of activity and was a very “good” and actively involved person. We did elect her.
    2. again, my memory may be wrong; but I think Radcliffe was allotted proportionally more spots to fill than Harvard.
    I may be wrong on both memories.
    But thanks Sandy for the shot in the arm: I’m going to dig mine out. If nothing else I can hang it in my apt!

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